Joe Newell reports on the government’s controversial announcement the HS2 rail link will go ahead.
Since its inception in 2009, the proposed rail network High-Speed 2, or HS2, has remained divisive. The new railway aims to improve links between the north and south of England with a two-phase connection from London to Birmingham, and from there to Manchester and Leeds, forming a Y-shaped network. As the country’s second high speed railway, perhaps aspiring to the success of its older brother connecting London with the Eurostar, HS2 is projected to decrease journey times to London by up to seventy-five minutes.
What that figure really means for the UK economy is one dimension to the HS2 debate – proponents of the project argue the reduced commute will increase access to London thereby developing areas that do not usually benefit from the capital’s job market. Along with necessary infrastructural improvements, the hope is that the economic disparity between the north and south of the country will be lessened. Fewer domestic flights and car journeys would also be an important result for the UK’s carbon footprint, although this seems to be something of a secondary concern.
Along with necessary infrastructural improvements, the hope is that the economic disparity between the north and south of the country will be lessened.
A few weeks ago, Boris Johnson announced that his government had green-lit construction – following months of ambiguity – and confirmed his faith in HS2 to deliver on its promises. This decision comes in the wake of controversial revelations concerning the budget and timing of the project. Phase One of the line, which began tentatively in 2017 after parliamentary approval, was expected to be finished by 2026. MPs were informed last September that Phase One would actually be completed between 2028 and 2031. Similarly, Phase Two, connecting Leeds and Manchester, was promised for 2032, and is now expected anywhere from 2035 to 2040. Perhaps more worrying are the gross budget miscalculations; estimates of £56 billion from 2015 have nearly doubled to £106 billion in only five years, serving to substantiate doubts about the project’s financial payoff. The lofty ambitions of the project were always going to demand heavy investment. HS2 aims to provide not only faster trains (at 224mph, they would be the fastest in Europe), but also a higher frequency of services than current lines, requiring more platforms, superior tracks and a more sophisticated signalling system.
The planned route also requires that existing infrastructure, such as underground pipes, roads and even rivers be diverted. Nevertheless, the government contractor HS2 ltd have been accused of ignoring such complications in their cost projections; most notably, the company did not include the cost of buying a whole block of flats obstructing the line. Johnson echoed this narrative when he announced the go-ahead. He criticised the company’s management of the project but added that it still ‘has not detracted from the fundamental value’ of the line. In what seems to be Johnson’s default rhetorical stance, he assured MPs his government is ‘going to get this done’. Naturally Jeremy Corbyn, although supportive of HS2, retorted that doubt as to the project’s future was ‘because of the abject failure of successive Conservative governments to keep on top of the costs’. Beyond the party line, HS2 has engendered divide throughout the Commons.
Nevertheless, the government contractor HS2 ltd have been accused of ignoring complications in their cost projections
Conservative MPs like Dame Cheryl Gillan suggest that construction will be detrimental to her constituency of Chesham and Amersham and goes so far as to doubt the ‘value for money’ of the entire project. In terms of its environmental impact, the speed and frequency of HS2 trains will provide a more viable alternative to flying; Lib Dem MP Munira Wilson sees improved rail as the ‘key to cutting carbon emissions and tackling climate change’ while denouncing plans for a third runway at Heathrow. Such benefits are nonetheless weighed up against the disruptive effects of building the line – it might be surprising to some that Green Party leader Caroline Lucas disagrees with the project on these grounds. She says wildlife and nature reserves will suffer too heavily at the hands of construction, such as the diversion of rivers. Most do not seem to have such fundamental qualms about HS2, and instead express apprehension over local decisions. For instance, MP Sir Graham Brady has questioned why a station is planned for his constituency rather than nearby Manchester airport for which that tributary of the line is intended. He calls plans to cut through a number of villages ‘entirely unnecessary’. Indeed, many families in HS2’s path have been ordered to leave their homes in as little as a month’s time; Ron and Anne Ryall are being forced out of their family neighbourhood of over one hundred years, while residents of Burton Green in Warwickshire have opposed HS2, which will bisect their village, for ten years and so admit bitter frustration after Johnson’s announcement. However, constituents of Crewe (also bisected by HS2 tracks) and their MP alike look forward to what they believe will be regenerative effects for the area.
Some question whether such a vast budget could be put to better use improving and augmenting existing rail
Tory MP Kieran Mullan cites direct benefits for business in Crewe as a result of the improved London connection. Industry experts tend to agree that there will be positive economic effects. Jude Brimble, national secretary for global trade union GMB, points out that thousands of skilled jobs in construction and supply that HS2 demands will benefit areas along the line as well as those further afield. Although, some question whether such a vast budget could be put to better use improving and augmenting existing rail. In light of recent explosions in the budget forecast, infrastructural improvements with more tangible benefits are a tempting prospect. National organisation Friends of the Earth advocate alternative investment (also citing the threat to valuable natural habitats, including 108 ancient woodland areas). The Coordinator of Swale Friends of the Earth, Anna Stanford, has pointed out that ‘there is only ever a limited pot of money for investment in low carbon infrastructure so this money could be far better spent on projects that reduce emissions more effectively – more regional rail connections, bus services, cycling and walking infrastructure.’
Confidence in HS2 is, for good reason, wavering – not that it was ever universal. Of course, any project with grand promises and a vague timescale for their delivery is bound to encounter resistance, especially as its impact on UK residents will be felt far more immediately. Whether or not HS2 is better seen as audacious or reckless, it has proved to be no less polarising than any other issue haunting contemporary British politics.