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HS2 approved, but at what cost?

Friday 14th February 2020 | Jake

Prime minister Boris Johnson has a penchant for embracing expensive, controversial and generally unpopular construction projects. As mayor of London he proudly championed the much-maligned garden bridge. Later on he threw his support behind a bridge connecting England to France, while as prime minister he has mooted the possibility of similarly bridging Northern Ireland and Scotland. And those are just some of the bridges he liked. He also called for an aircraft runway on the Thames. All these plans were unpopular, and all basically unworkable. So it should come as little surprise to anybody that he has approved development of HS2, the high-speed railway running through much of England.

The BBC broke the news on Monday that Johnson had confirmed the government’s decision to complete the High Speed 2 project, which was first approved by the Labour government a decade ago. In the announcement, Johnson conceded the line had been blighted by “poor management” and going ahead was “a controversial and difficult decision”. That’s one way of putting it. HS2 has detractors everywhere, from locals to environmentalists, economists to politicians.

 

Sky News on HS2

But first a little on what the rail-link proposes. The Department for Transport (DfT) has set two phases for the line’s development. Phase 1 simply links London to Birmingham, while phase 2 will fork out from Birmingham to Leeds and Manchester. DfT hope phase 1 will be completed between 2028-31, with phase 2 finished by 2035-40.

Critics of the line regularly point to its delays and ever-ballooning cost. AP Europe pointed out in their coverage that the cost was initially estimated at a relatively lowly £33bn, with the first trains set to be operational by 2026. Having missed its target start date by a few year, what’s a few billion in overrunning costs? Private Eye notes that in five years HS2 has doubled its estimated cost to £106bn. With work scheduled to be completed in 15 years, what chance does the project have on sticking to its new budget? None.

 

Reporter-comedian Jonathan Pie speaks with TV presenter and environmentalist Chris Packham

HS2 might not deliver on some of its promised advantages, either. DfT regularly boast journey times will be drastically reduced (an hour off London to Manchester, half an hour off London to Birmingham), but transport secretary Grant Shapps has told the BBC a cost-cutting change of route will make trains run slower north of Birmingham.

Crucially, its damage to England’s countryside cannot be costed. Greenpeace director John Sauven said Johnson’s decision made him “this century’s largest destroyer of ancient woodlands in the UK”. Meanwhile fellow Tory Michael Fabricant told AP the line would damage or destroy 100 ancient woodlands. The environmental damage would be “immense”, he said.

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