Today
Mon 25 October 2021

Despite a dramatic reduction in rail travel due to the pandemic, no review has been conducted into the rationale for the £100 billion project, reports Sam Bright

The Government has admitted that it has not yet assessed the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the viability of the High Speed 2 (HS2) railway project.

HS2 is a controversial rail infrastructure project that has been discussed for almost two decades, following the opening of HS1 in 2003. HS2 intends to build a high-speed route from Birmingham to London, before potentially extending from Birmingham to Leeds and Manchester.

A 2019 review of HS2 by the project’s former chairman Douglas Oakervee suggested that the total cost could amount to £106.6 billion – considerably more than the first official budget for HS2, published in March 2012, which gave a range of between £30.9 billion and £36.0 billion for the whole line, including the links to Manchester and Leeds.

For context, the Coronavirus Job Retention (Furlough) scheme is expected to have cost some £54 billion in 2020/21, with the procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE) costing £15.2 billion.

The deputy chair of the Oakervee review, Lord Berkeley, says that MPs were “seriously misled by the failure of HS2 Ltd and by ministers to report objectively and fairly on costs and programme changes.” Lord Berkeley has since been critical of the Oakervee review, which he says underestimates the costs of the project and overestimates its benefits.

HS2 was originally sold on the idea that journey times between major city hubs would be reduced, yet after a long public debate about the value for money of shaving off 30-40 minutes from London to Birmingham, the Government has since promoted the “capacity” benefits of the project. “As a brand new railway line, HS2 is the best option for taking the pressure off the existing network,” the HS2 website states. “It adds extra capacity where it is needed most.”

However, the Government has not assessed how changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic will affect the demand for HS2. In May, Labour MP Margaret Greenwood asked the Government whether it had modelled the change in demand for commuter train services that had arisen during the COVID-19 outbreak and how these changes may affect the demand for HS2 in the long-term.

Minister of State for Transport Andrew Stephenson responded by saying that the Government has not yet produced an assessment of how major public works projects will be affected by post-COVID demand. “There is significant uncertainty around how travel patterns will change post-COVID,” he said, pointing out that an assessment in relation to HS2 is likely to be published in early 2022.

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It has been estimated that rail passenger numbers have fallen by as much as 70% due to COVID-related travel restrictions. Many large firms have announced that they will be permanently instituting home or hybrid working due to the experiences of the pandemic, closing a proportion of their offices.

Despite widespread support for the project in Westminster, the political controversy over HS2 has mounted in recent weeks after the Chesham and Amersham by-election. Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Green, who has been a vocal critic of the railway, overturned a 16,223-vote Conservative majority in the area. HS2 cuts through the area, and has already disrupted the natural and physical architecture of this Chilterns constituency – much to the chagrin of local residents.

Under pressure from his former chief aide Dominic Cummings, Prime Minister Boris Johnson commissioned the Oakervee review in 2019 to assess whether and how the scheme should proceed. Oakervee “strongly advised against cancelling the scheme,” and the Prime Minister sanctioned this conclusion. Cummings subsequently told MPs that Johnson had approved the project based on “garbage” data predicting an exponential increase in demand for the service.

Without a reliable assessment of how the pandemic has affected demand, it seems unlikely that the Government’s current rationale for the project can be sustained. While this will not stop HS2 in its tracks, it will certainly create a growing number of political headaches for the governing party.

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