HS2: If France and Italy can deliver high speed rail at a reasonable price, why can’t we? - Bill Carmichael
A week ago we were marvelling at human ingenuity after scientists and engineers managed to take samples from an asteroid hurtling through space and deliver them back to earth in a pioneering project that could give an insight into the origins of the universe.
This week Rishi Sunak announced his government was incapable of building a railway line from Birmingham to Manchester, something our Victorian ancestors would have achieved in a few months,
So humans can successfully navigate millions of miles of empty space across a hostile and uninhabitable galaxy, but connecting the 70 odd miles between two of our major cities back here on earth is completely beyond our current government.
In some ways I can understand the decision by Mr Sunak this week, because the costs of HS2 have become astronomical. The original estimate, including the eastern leg to Leeds which was later axed, was £32bn. The latest estimate, without the Leeds branch, is more than double at £71bn, and some experts reckon the eventual cost will be well north of £100bn.
What no one seems to be addressing is why transport infrastructure costs in the UK are so much higher than in other countries. China, for example, can build high speed rail links at a fraction of the cost, and in a fraction of the time, than in the UK.
Admittedly, China is an authoritarian dictatorship, and the rail builders don’t have to worry much about getting the consent of local communities or the safety of the workers on the job.
But cost comparisons with Western countries show some baffling disparities. For example, France managed to build a 203-mile high speed rail line from Bordeaux across the south of the country for just over £12bn.
In other words they built a line double the length of HS2 for something like a tenth of the cost.
The high speed rail line between the Italian cities of Naples and Bari, a distance of about 150 miles, was constructed at about a fifth of the cost of HS2. If France and Italy can deliver high speed rail at a reasonable price, why can’t we?
High speed rail internationally costs about £32m per kilometre, with most projects coming within the range of £11m to £79m per kilometre, depending on factors such as the number of tunnels and bridges required. HS2 is costing almost eight times as much at about £250m per kilometre. Again the question is why? When you dig a little deeper the finger of blame is usually pointed at the UK’s cumbersome planning system, property prices and environmental mitigations. For example, much of phase one of the project crossed marginal Conservative-held constituencies in the Home Counties, and as a result tunnels and deep cuttings were dug across places like the Chiltern Hills to hide the line, and this massively increased the costs.
The frustrating thing about the whole HS2 fiasco is that many of us in the north were not much fussed about shaving 30 minutes from a train journey to London in the first place. Journey times to London from places like Leeds, Sheffield, and York at around two hours 30 minutes or less, are already reasonable and the service is generally acceptable, although ticket prices are prohibitively expensive.
What we wanted, and many of us were very vocal about this at the time, was better east-west links.
The idea was that if you harnessed the power of the great cities of the north, with better connectivity between Liverpool, Manchester, Halifax, Huddersfield, Bradford, Leeds, Wakefield, Sheffield, York and Hull, you would create a productive counterweight to the overwhelming power of London and the south east, resulting in a more equal and prosperous society.
Instead of starting in London, construction of HS2 should have begun in the north across the Pennines, with the southern leg coming later if the money was available. It was the north that needed the investment, not London.
Mr Sunak pledged that the money saved by scrapping the Birmingham to Manchester section would be re-invested in other transport projects in the north. For example £3bn has been set aside for upgraded and electrified lines between Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and Hull.
All very well, but given the promises broken in the past, who can say that the new Network North, as it is called, won’t go the same way as Northern Powerhouse Rail and HS3?