NEWS this week that the Government is launching a review of the HS2 rail project linking London to Birmingham and eventually to Leeds and Manchester – with a “go or no-go” decision by the end of this year – shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.
There have been mutterings about the project for some time, largely because of the rapidly escalating costs, and the new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was known to have some doubts.
Already around £4bn of public money has been spent, mainly to the benefit of a small army of lawyers and consultants, without a single sleeper being laid.
So there was a sense of inevitability in the announcement by the new Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, that the review, to be chaired by civil engineer Douglas Oakervee, would be tasked to investigate whether the benefits of HS2 really “stack up”.
It is all a long way from the original wondrous vision, put forward under a Labour government, for a 330 mile-long Y-shaped high speed line that, it was said, would help close the economic gap between North and South.
Up to 18 trains per hour, each capable of accommodating more than 1,000 passengers, would travel at speeds of up to 250mph, substantially cutting journey times between London and the big cities of the North and boosting the economy by an estimated £15bn a year.
Phase One, from London to Birmingham, was to be completed by 2026 and Phase Two, linking Leeds, Manchester and other northern cities, had a target date of 2033.
But the cost, already breathtakingly high, started heading skywards. The original estimate of £32bn in 2012, rose to £42bn within a year and has risen at a cracking pace ever since. The latest estimate is £56bn, but many experts expect the cost to rise to £80bn or even £100bn.
Given that many government-funded public projects end up costing three times the original estimate – the London Olympics for example – this isn’t an outlandish suggestion.
The cost per kilometre is something like six times the cost of the French LGV Mediterranee, opened less than 20 years ago, and 22 times the cost of the Paris-Lyon LGV, although to be fair this was completed way back in 1983.
But the biggest problem with HS2 is that the whole concept was essentially back to front. It was devised as yet another London-based infrastructure project that would spread up to Birmingham, and then eventually reaching the North – oh you lucky people! – in 14 years’ time.
The HS3 project – otherwise known as Northern Powerhouse Rail – a new high speed rail line linking Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Hull and Newcastle – was tacked on almost as if it was a bit of an afterthought.
This is precisely the wrong way around. After decades of under investment in our transport system, the North is desperate for rail improvements right now – not in 2033.
As anyone who uses our public transport system regularly – as I do – could tell you, our rail system is creaking at the seams with dangerous overcrowding on virtually all the main commuter routes, made worse by the unreliability of some 40-year-old rolling stock.
What the North’s economy needs is fast, reliable links between, for example, Sheffield and Manchester, or Leeds and Hull, and improvements to the main commuter routes, rather than shaving a few minutes off the journey times to London.
It is only by combining the might of the great cities of Yorkshire, Lancashire and the North-East that we can hope to defy the gravitational pull of the giant economic death star that is London – and Northern Powerhouse Rail is an essential component of that.
So the rail improvement project should have started here in the North, linking our cities, and at a later date work could have been considered to improve North-South links to London.
If, as seems increasingly possible, HS2 is curtailed or cancelled altogether, we should push for the available funds to be directed to the North.
The worst of all possible worlds would be a decision to complete Phase One of HS2 – the London to Birmingham part – and then cancel the northern bit.
That would be nothing less than a betrayal of commuters and businesses in the North.