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Last edited 30 Apr 2021
High Speed 2 (HS2)
High Speed 2 (HS2) is a high-speed railway proposed for construction in the UK. It is currently undergoing a lengthy planning process. The plan for HS2 is to link London, Birmingham, the East Midlands, Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester. HS2 expands upon the first high-speed rail line in the country that connects London to the Channel Tunnel.
Construction is intended to be carried out in two phases, following the ‘Y’ configuration of the rail line, beginning in 2017 and reaching Birmingham by 2026, Crewe by 2027 and with an estimated completion date in 2033. 400 m long trains will travel at speeds of up to 250mph, faster than any current operating speed in Europe, with services up to 14 times an hour in each direction.
High Speed Two Ltd (HS2 Ltd) was established to develop the project by the UK government. While cost estimates have varied wildly since the project was announced, the Department for Transport has estimated that it will be £43 bn. However, a study conducted by the Institute for Economic Affairs suggested it could be closer to £80 bn.
Such staggering costs are the key reason why, despite broad mainstream political consensus on the viability and importance of HS2, it continues to be controversial with the public, and numerous activist campaigns having been established. Despite this, Parliament has approved the first two construction phases, although the final plan and route details are still to be formalised.
The government claims that Britain’s rail network is reached capacity and is becoming unfit for purpose in the 21st century. Network Rail has suggested the southern section of the West Coast Main Line (the fastest rail route between London and Birmingham) will be ‘effectively full by 2024.’
The new line will free up capacity on congested commuter routes, drive growth, help to shift the economic focus away from London and rebalance the north and the south. On the London-West Midlands section alone, the government claims that 40,000 jobs will be created.
 Proposed route
The first phase of construction is for the line linking London and the West Midlands. The second phase will consist of the lines extending in a V-shape from Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds, with intermediate stations planned in the East Midlands and South Yorkshire.
The Department for Transport claim that the Birmingham-London journey will be reduced to 49 minutes from the current 71 minutes. The Manchester-London journey will be reduced to 68 minutes from 128 minutes.
 February 2016
In February 2016, Liverpool offered to pay £2bn towards HS2 if a 20 mile extension can be made to include the city in the network. Officials claim there is the risk that Liverpool will miss out on the benefits of their Northern counterparts, and estimate that two-thirds of the £3bn cost of extending HS2 could be covered through increased revenue in business rates and stimulated employment over several decades.
 November 2016
The route will link Crewe to Manchester, with a spur out to a new station at Manchester Airport, and the West Midlands to Leeds. However, the government again delayed the final decision about whether to include a new station in, or near Sheffield.
The original proposal was for trains from Birmingham to Leeds to stop at a new station built at Meadowhall, Sheffield's out-of-town shopping centre. After complaints that this would disadvantage Sheffield, an alternative option was developed using the existing city centre station.
The government's preferred option is for the main HS2 route to run east of Sheffield but for a spur to take passengers to Sheffield city centre. The government claims that this option would cost about £1bn less and would be easier to construct. However, this would cut through a brand new housing estate near Doncaster that is currently under construction.
The government has said that a final decision will not be made until 2017.
The UK’s first high-speed rail line was opened in 2003, linking the 67 miles between London and the Channel Tunnel. In 2009 the Labour government established HS2 Ltd to draw up plans for a new route. Their report was published in March 2010, and the project was reexamined by the Coalition government that took office in May 2010. Both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats supported the proposals set out by the report but pushed for the line to be routed via Heathrow Airport.
In January 2012, the Secretary of State for Transport announced that HS2 would go ahead, despite a public consultation finding that 90% of respondents were opposed to the plans. The High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill was passed and became law in November 2013.
The final HS2 Bill is undergoing scrutiny in the House of Commons and will move to the Lords later in 2016. According to The Independent in March 2016, a Government source said getting royal assent by the end of 2016, as planned, was unlikely because it was “up in the air” how long rebellious Conservative peers will try to bog down the Bill.
In his March 2016 Budget, George Osborne committed extra funding in response to the National Infrastructure Commission making the case for HS3 - proposed HS2 sections being extended to Liverpool in the west to Hull and Newcastle in the east.
In July 2017, the winners of £6.6bn worth of contracts to build the first phase between London and Birmingham were announced. Carillion, Costain and Balfour Beatty were among the consortiums who will build tunnels, bridges and embankments on the first stretch. The contracts will support 16,000 jobs.
 Arguments for
Chancellor George Osborne has said the Y-shaped line will be "the engine for growth in the north and the Midlands". The government says it expects 70% of jobs created to be outside London, and a report by KPMG (commissioned by the government) suggested that the Midlands and the North would benefit more than the capital.
They estimate that the West Midlands will gain most in absolute terms with a rise of £1.5bn-£3.1bn in output in 2037. In percentage terms, the East Midlands will gain most - between 2.2% and 4.3% increase in output in 2037. Apart from the economics, HS2 supporters argue that the real regeneration benefit is to be found in the journey times that will be cut between cities.
 Economic boost
 Environmental benefits
The government claims HS2 will transfer approximately 4.5 million journeys from the air and 9 million from the roads each year, as well as expanding space on the existing network for freight, thereby reducing the number of HGVs on the roads.
The Department for Transport (DfT) has said, "high speed rail is the most efficient way of transporting people between cities. It requires fewer stops, meaning less energy is expended on repeatedly braking and accelerating." However, opponents claim that HS2 may encourage increased commuting from Birmingham to London, and point to the fact that the trains will use 50% more energy than Eurostar trains.
According to the DfT, in 2011 there was an average of 4,000 people standing on morning peak trains going into Euston. As such, Network Rail claims that the West Coast Main Line will be full by the mid-2020s. The problem will only be exacerbated by projections that demand is set to grow by 26% between 2011 and 2023. Demand is expected to rise by 46% between London and Manchester, and by 39% between London and Leeds.
On the idea of simply upgrading the West Coast Main Line, Lord Adonis has said: “Patching and mending a 200-year-old railway, working at capacity, is hugely expensive and disruptive. The last upgrade of the line, completed five years ago, cost £10bn. It entailed a decade of constant disruption to passengers and freight, and it delivered only a fraction of the capacity and connectivity of HS2."
 Arguments against
The Institute for Public Policy Research has proposed that the construction phases be reversed, so the V-shaped line linking Manchester and Leeds with Birmingham would be constructed before the London to Birmingham line, thereby giving the north a head start.
The DfT claims this estimate includes a large contingency fund which may not be used, although the Public Accounts select committee has expressed alarm at the fact that contingency spending accounts for a third of the total budget.
Opponents argue that the demolition of homes and damage to rural England required by the proposed route is too costly and disruptive. Estimates show that more than 600 homes will be demolished and a further 340 homes cut off from their wider neighbourhood. More than half of those affected between London and Birmingham are in and around the area of Camden.
 High-speed is not necessary
Campaigners argue that other countries are increasingly turning their backs on high speed rail networks. Other means of technology such as video conferencing and Google’s driverless cars are heralded as being cheaper and more up-to-date means of doing business and getting around.
In June 2016, the National Audit Office published 'Progress with preparations for High Speed 2' in which they suggested that " The unrealistic timetable set for HS2 Ltd. by the Department means they are not as ready to deliver as they hoped to be at this point. The Department now needs to get the project working to a timescale that is achievable.”
Responding to the report, chief executive of HS2, Simon Kirby, said: "The role of the NAO is to challenge projects such as HS2 and through that challenge improve the way they deliver for the taxpayer. This report does this and we accept that challenge."
In August 2016, it was announced that additional properties and areas were to be covered by safeguarding regulations of the proposed HS2 route. See HS2 Phase One - safeguarding directions updated for more information.
In December 2017, MPs called for legal action to be taken by the government against Simon Kirby, the former chief executive of HS2 Ltd. for unauthorised redundancy payments. The public body is bound to statutory redundancy terms limiting payments but despite this, a total of £2.76 million was paid to 94 individuals, in direct contravention of civil service rules.
The NAO found that Kirby was sent an email in April 2016 by a senior civil servant at the Department for Transport (DfT) that expressly disallowed the proposed payouts. However, a HR director subsequently informed the HS2 Ltd. board and executive committee that approval had been given. Documents were later discovered, in an audit, to have been altered to try and hide the mistake.
MPs on the public accounts committee called the payouts 'a shocking waste of taxpayers' money', and said that HS2 Ltd. 'lacks basic financial controls'. They went further to say that 'ultimately, Kirby has not been held to account for his actions'. One member of the committee, Conservative MP Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, said the payouts looked like "a wilful misuse of public funds".
On 25 June 2018, plans were announced for a ‘green corridor’ alongside the railway, consisting of 7 million new trees and shrubs, new wildlife habitats, native woodlands and community spaces. (Ref. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/hs2-launches-plans-for-unprecedented-green-corridor-stretching-alongside-the-railway)
In February 2019, a Channel 4 documentary claimed the government was considering terminating HS2 at Birmingham, or stopping the project altogether, due to spiralling costs. The government dismissed the claims as “complete nonsense”.
In August 2019 it was announced that the government had commissioned an independent review of the project, headed by former Crossrail chairman Douglas Oakervee, with Lord Berkeley as deputy. A final report will be submitted by the autumn.
The review will consider:
- Benefits and impacts.
- Affordability and efficiency.
- Deliverability and scope.
- Phasing, including its relationship with Northern Powerhouse Rail.
In September 2019, amid fears that the Boris Johnson government may cancel the project, Transport Minister Grant Shapps revealed the full cost of the project may be £88bn and the first phase, from London and Birmingham, is delayed by up to five years. The independent Oakervee review of the project is due in the autumn. Ref https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/hs2-update-3-september-2019
In November 2019, following the scheduling of a general election, it was announced that the independent review would not be published until 2020. Lord Berkeley tweeted: “My role as dep chair of the Oakervee Report on HS2 finished yesterday. Report not finished and no opportunity to influence conclusions. We are told that, when completed by Doug O and the DfT secretariat, it will be locked into the DfT vaults for the new S of S to publish.”
However, a copy of the report was subsequently leaked in November 2019, recommending that the project should go ahead, but that the major civil engineering contracts should be re-tendered. Deputy chair Lord Berkeley disowned the leaked report, suggesting he would produce his own conflicting version.
In January 2020, leaked previews of the Oakervee report suggested that costs could rise to £106bn and proposed that options for the second phase from Birmingham to Leeds and Manchester should be reconsidered.
On 24 January 2020, the third report of the National Audit Office (NAO) revealed that the latest official estimated cost of HS2 was between £65bn and £88bn at 2015 prices, and that completion was due between 2036 and 2040. Ref https://www.nao.org.uk/report/high-speed-two-a-progress-update/
Despite this, on 11 February 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed in a statement to Parliament that after careful consideration of the Oakervee review, the decision had been taken to proceed with HS2 and with Phase 2b of the project, extending high-speed rail from the West Midlands to the North. Ref https://www.gov.uk/government/news/pm-confirms-hs2-will-go-ahead-alongside-revolution-in-local-transport
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 External references
- Gov.uk - High Speed 2 Ltd
- BBC Magazine - HS2
- Independent - National Audit Office and Cabinet Office review poor scorn on railway plans
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