Fast train to where? What HS2 tells us about Britain’s infrastructure choices

Professor Iain Docherty, Dean of the Institute for Advanced Studies, University of Stirling

Professor Jon Shaw, Head of School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Plymouth.

The HS2 railway route under construction between London and the West Midlands.

With Rishi Sunak scrapping the Birmingham to Manchester leg of HS2, Iain Docherty and Jon Shaw set out what the HS2 saga tells us about how infrastructure choices are made in the UK.

Transport hardly ever makes it to the top of the news. It barely registers above 1 or 2% when people are asked about what the most pressing problems facing Britain today might be. But the High Speed 2 (HS2) railway has been all over the front pages since it emerged that the government was about to cancel the leg from Birmingham to Manchester.

Most of the press coverage of HS2 has focused on the headline costs of the project, which have increased markedly due to many factors, not least construction cost inflation running at around 20% in the wake of Brexit, Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine. Until this week, HS2 may have been ‘Europe’s largest infrastructure project’, but its troubled history is important for reasons other than its high pricetag.

The saga of attempting to build the kind of high speed railway now commonplace across Europe between England’s largest cities tells us a quite a lot more about some key aspects of governance in the UK beyond our ongoing struggles with project management and cost control. In particular, HS2’s shifting fortunes reveal important lessons about why we choose to spend public money on some projects and not on others.

The first of these is about how major capital projects, particularly in the transport domain, have come to depend on having a key senior individual in government to act as champion for them. Building HS2 was first adopted as government policy as the result of sustained work over several years by Andrew Adonis. Coming from the Lords, Adonis was less immediately exposed to the nitty gritty of local opposition to construction, and was able to use his time as junior minister and then Secretary of State for Transport to develop a case for high speed rail that convinced then Prime Minister Gordon Brown that it was worthwhile.

Then, despite the general austerity he oversaw as Chancellor, George Osborne nonetheless earned the moniker ‘George the Builder’ first for his refusal to cancel Crossrail when encouraged to do so by the Treasury, and then subsequently his enthusiasm for bringing high speed rail investment to the North of England under the wider Northern Powerhouse umbrella.

Boris Johnson, who made focus on transport a key part of his tenure as Mayor of London, managed to keep most of HS2 and a high speed TransPennine link alive in the Integrated Rail Plan of late 2021 despite increasingly vocal opposition to the escalating costs.

But without such champions in Downing Street, political enthusiasm for the project waned significantly. The Tories’ success in the Uxbridge byelection appears to have convinced Rishi Sunak that focusing on potholes and a ‘Plan for Drivers’ is a more electorally appealing strategy than projects like HS2. The echoes of Margaret Thatcher’s time in office, when stepping back from state support for public transport and promoting instead the notion of the ‘great car owning democracy’ were the order of the day, grow ever louder; indeed, a good chunk of the £36bn Sunak says he’s saved from scrapping the Manchester leg of HS2 seems to be earmarked for major road schemes.

That personality politics have become so important in determining major infrastructure priorities highlights two further overarching issues about how investment decisions are made that deserve scrutiny. First is that the substantial technical expertise contained within an ever more elaborate institutional architecture to support decision making – most notably the National Infrastructure Commission – has not perhaps fed through to investment choices as much as it might have done.

Then there is the curious fact that there remains no national spatial plan for England. Ironically, HS2 was about as close to a coherent national plan as has been in place for decades: it signalled that government wanted to stimulate growth in the largest economic hubs outside London, which is where the shortfall in productivity between the UK and its peers is arguably most acute.

But now that HS2 has been cut back to London to Birmingham, what then is the plan for England’s economic geography as a whole? Levelling Up, for all its rhetorical appeal and political salience, is essentially about making things a little bit better everywhere, and not about the hard choices of prioritising limited resources for greatest impact. No wonder that Andy Burnham is quite so exercised about HS2 terminating at Birmingham given the competitive advantage Andy Street’s city region would immediately enjoy over his own.

HS2 also reveals one final uncomfortable truth about how we make investment decisions in the UK. The choice of a route through the Chilterns essentially boils down to Britain’s particular form of transport econometrics. Our appraisal system remains fixated on abstract notions of the impact of travel time on economic output above all else. It is quite different from the kind of broader, spatial strategy exemplified by the French notion of a ‘structuring network’ that other public policy decisions can coalesce around.

In other words, had someone other than economists who think Britain is a flat, featureless plain been in charge, then instead of developing an almost dead straight 400kph railway requiring enormous lengths of tunnelling to be politically viable, we could have adopted the obvious solution the motorway planners (and before them the Romans) took and used a fork more closely following the M1/M6.

And there is the tragedy of HS2 in a nutshell. If it had been called the ‘new high capacity north-south trunk line’ from the outset, then it would have been much more straightforward to explain its real benefits and avoid the trap of ‘getting to Birmingham half an hour quicker’. It was too late in the day when HS2 Ltd began to properly describe the rationale of the project in terms of releasing capacity for many more local and regional train services, building a more prosperous future for major cities, and decarbonising how we move around the country.

How much easier that would have been if there had been… a plan.

This post first appeared as a comment piece on the UK in a changing Europe blog.

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