Is HS2 steaming ahead or in danger of going off track?

HS2 rail link HS2 rail proposals could be mired in legal challenges for years to come

What's really going on with HS2? The high speed rail debate continues to hot up this week.

The admission this week by HS2 Ltd, the 'arm's length' company managing the project, that they overlooked more than 400 responses during last year's consultation process means the whole enterprise could be mired in legal challenges for years to come.

The government will aim to maintain their parallel track whatever happens in the courts.

They will continue working through fiendishly detailed analysis, including the environmental impact, in order to have the enabling legislation ready for next year's Queen's Speech.

They also promise the delayed compensation payment arrangements anxiously awaited by homeowners on the route will be published later this year.

Homeowners say it's already too late to stop their properties from being blighted.

Steaming ahead?

All this on top of a spate of reports in sections of the press hostile to HS2 casting so much doubt on the project that HS2's chief executive Alison Munro felt it necessary to tell MPs recently that it was still "full steam ahead".

Over 500 consultants were beavering away as she spoke.

Fathoming out what's really going on is something akin to of 'Kremlinology' during the Cold War.

Cheryl Gillan MP MP Cheryl Gillan has never made any secret of her hostility to HS2

This is politics at its most arcane and obscure.

Reports that HS2 was being opposed even within the Cabinet should surprise no one.

The Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan, MP for Chesham and Amersham, has never made any secret of her hostility to it.

But she is widely expected to leave the government in a forthcoming reshuffle.

More significant is the scepticism of the Treasury in general and, I am told, of the Chancellor George Osborne in particular.

You might expect the keepers of the public purse to agonise over the £33 billion cost of the scheme.

But they are equally exercised by the scaling-back of the so-called 'multiplier effect'.

Their calculation that every £1 invested in HS2 would generate not £2.40 for the economy, as originally forecast, is now exactly half that figure.

Whatever next?

The biggest clues could come soon after the Olympic Games when that Cabinet reshuffle is confidently predicted by Westminster-watchers.

Promotion for the Transport Secretary, Justine Greening, would be seen as clearing the way for the government to make another U-Turn, this time over its opposition to a third runway at Heathrow.

Heathrow Airport Some commentators are predicting a government U-turn on Heathrow's third runway

Her Putney constituency borders the airport and she has long advocated high-speed rail as a way of reducing the number of domestic flights, so easing the pressure on runway capacity in the South East.

Expanding Heathrow would limit significantly the rationale behind HS2.

But other important elements of the business case would remain; not least the capacity issue, as anyone who has stood for hours on end during peak time services to and from London will confirm.

Railway experts have debated for years whether or not less expensive make-do-and-mend strategies including Rail Package Two could deliver a safe, efficient and affordable alternative to the big bang of high-speed rail.

Parliamentary mood swings

The Stop HS2 campaigners have convinced themselves that political support for the project is "crumbling".

They point to the recent findings of the Commons Public Accounts Committee that the first high-speed line linking London with the Channel Tunnel was continuing to fall short of business expectations.

Map of proposed HS2 Midlands section The HS2 proposals are designed to connect London with the Midlands and north

But supporters of HS2 say a high-speed line connecting the capital with the Midlands, northern England and eventually Scotland rests on a different business model altogether, so the decidedly downbeat message from MPs on the select committee should be kept in perspective.

Labour, who initially championed HS2 while in government, now say they cannot make a "cast iron commitment" to it.

Nevertheless, this gigantic enterprise undoubtedly still commands the support of a broad, three-party consensus which is unusual in British politics.

The balance of opinions among individual MPs is much as it was two years ago.

'Dead duck'?

Start Quote

Patrick Burns

Even if it goes ahead, it would still take many decades before the argument for and against the business case could be settled once and for all”

End Quote Patrick Burns BBC political editor

But if for any reason there is no mention of HS2 in next year's Queen's Speech there would be insufficient time for it to become law before the election.

There is a tacit acceptance at Westminster that were it not to be on the statute book by 2015 it really would be, as one Cabinet minister reportedly put it, "a dead duck".

Even if it goes ahead, it would still take many decades before the argument for and against the business case could be settled once and for all.

Supporters of HS2 point out that the original Victorian rail pioneers saw no great early returns on their investments.

And yet the evolution of Britain's modern industrial economy would have looked very different without them.

It's not easy being a politician, gazing into the future and learning the lessons of history at one and the same time.

Patrick Burns, Political editor, Midlands Article written by Patrick Burns Patrick Burns Political editor, Midlands

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  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Padav. DfT claimed 2.4 not me. Only know have they had to admit that they cooked the books. And your transformative infrastructure, what is it going to transform? Not the economy as there is very little return. North/south devide. No because most jobs are going to London. Enviroment, no it will destroy vast streaches of countryside. So where is your transformative infrastucture?

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    @Ian Reed - if you're going to quote me, at least be precise. I said the a project on HS2's scale can never deliver a massive BCR - not quite the same thing as you claimed? I'm not remotely interested in irrelevant timesaving criteria invented to create financial merit but I do value HS2 as a potentially transformative infrastructure investment - that huge benefit obviously don't matter to you!

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Padav. BCR as you have admitted is very bad. Travelling time to London is not that important as most people will be working while travelling, even using Skype. Something DfT delibrately omitted in their figures. So less need to travel. The big increase in train travel is short not long distance. So why HS2?

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    HS2 does not depend on facts, the evaluated pro's and cons to determine the merit of the project or not.

    It is political finesse and pressure from the rail constructors lobby that will decide this in much the same way the road haulage lobby convinced Beeching to destroy the railways in the first place.

    I like trains better than motorways but this project does nothing for rail.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    At the time of writing this I see 20 reasons why the UK is now lagging behind so many other world economies - and one very good reason where, when important projects in the national interests are concerned these ridiculous public consultations have to stop.

    For too long the UK has been prisoner to special interest groups and NIMBYs and we need to wake up, before its too late!

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    @Ian Reed - no, you're the one whose "lost it" - those viscerally opposed to HS2 (for all too obvious reasons) realise they've lost the strategic argument, which is why debate on anti-sites now revolves exclusively around the BCR. Any project on the scale of HS2 can never deliver a very large BCR - a short term cash payback - it's a strawman argument, which is why you pursue it relentlessly!

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Padav. I'm afraid you seem to have lost it. If you can't provide positive answers to these basic problems that HS2 has. And just say 'benchmarks are irrelevant' then you've lost the argument. HS2 won't payback fullstop, what ever time scale you put on it. Also I care about the enviroment so no to any 8 lane motorway. There are other ways to provide for infrastucture but with less glamour.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Your benchmarks are irrelevant. I want a next generation leap forward to create an alternative transport infrastructure fit for the future and HS2 delivers on all counts. If your demand is for an instant cash payback, HS2 (or anything like it) isn't going to help. Doubtless you'll be all in favour of a private toll 8 lane motorway instead -that idea certainly ticks all the boxes?

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Padav. Ok let's get down to it. What part of HS2 is good? Enviroment NO.
    Business case benifit ratio from 2.4 DOWN to just 1.2 at the moment could go down to .8. Creation of jobs, 70% in London. Cost of travelling on it is bound to be more than on other lines. The whole project is so good it's been given a RED/AMBER. And all of this for just £34 BILLION. So what is good about HS2? FACTS!

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    @Ian Reed - helps if you deal with facts instead of your (mis)interpretration of them. Some form of Judicial Review was always going to happen. Including consultation procedure errors (blown out of proportion by anti-HS2 actvists) effectively simplifies matters, eliminating the potential for any separate action, which could add further delay - so Mr. Burns was wrong about that?

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Padav. Well it seems that the judge holding the review in to this whole sorry mess does NOT agree with you. as he is to haul Justine Greening into court to answer why there has been huge errors in December. Oh, & WHY do we still not have the passaanger figures for WCML when HS2AA & others have asked for them?

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    @Ian Reed - and the fact that the entire consultation procedure has been analysed to death, including independent peer review, leads me to think that HS2AA are not being entirely open about their part in this saga?

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Padav. The fact that HS2AA has submitted on two occassions about the HS2 rail.Once in 2010 & again last year and yet BOTH the submissions went 'MISSING' along with other groups that are against HS2 perhaps would make me think someone in not being open.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    If its going to be cancelled then don't waste any more resources, do it and stop talking, don't forget extending the HS1 line to HS2 should increase HS1 numbers on HS1, and 1 square mile can take a good deal of track at 20 metres wide ( about 80 miles of track) so it is hardly ripping up swathes of countryside although I accept I would be against it if it was on my doorstep.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    If only to reduce carbon emission, it is essential that this scheme goes ahead. but it needs to be completed all the way to Scotland. Just think where we would be without the Motorways now. I recall the furore they raised. Other countries are investing in High Speed Rail. If we are to be a trading nation then so should we.
    Patrick Burns often doesn't bother to get his facts right before writing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    I don't live anywhere near the proposed route. I am opposed to it because it is too much money put into one project - real improvements elsewhere, with higher benefits, will be starved of money. According to HS2 North West, in evidence to Parliament, 70% of the passengers on HS2 will be leisure travellers - hardly the phalanx of business people who were going to justify it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Stalinesque folly needs put out to pasture.

    'Taxpayers have been saddled with a £4.8bn debt from the Channel Tunnel high-speed rail line (HS1)'

    'International passenger numbers on HS1 are a third of the original 1995 forecast'

    'DfT had not considered the benefits and costs of alternatives to HS2 such as investment in more local train routes.'

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    I see the anti-HS2 brigade are out in force below - unsurprising as this article is linked via the STOPHS2 website - cue yet another bout of ill-informed claptrap about HS2 saving 10 mins here and there at the cost of inflicting envrionmental armageddon - it's almost certain the hostile remarks below all originate from a narrow corridor in close proximity to the approved HS2 phase 1 pathway?

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Please explain how an admin error concerning responses that amount to less than 1% of the total number received will (to use your words) "mire the process in legal challenges for years"? Has the author been reading too much into the rhetoric emanating from naysayers who hope this might be just another spoiling tactic - perhaps the courts dismiss any challenge based on them as frivolous!

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Here's a much better idea, lets spend the £33b relocating the entire UK Government to the Midlands, turning central London into a theme park. It would probably cost less than half the budget and would give a boost to the midlands that would last.


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