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On the right tracks?

Major infrastructure projects can be fraught with difficulties of various kinds, not least political, where the UK planning system can drag out decision-making for years. Even before reaching that stage, governments are loath to make decisions that are subject to significant local or national opposition.

The intended third runway at Heathrow is a case in point. A number of major new airports have been built in other countries while each government of the day in Westminster has failed to bite the bullet. In the meantime, the country’s primary airport – and one of the world’s busiest – continues to run very close to maximum capacity, with inevitable delays.

Not that Brits are necessarily bad at implementation. Once the protracted planning inquiry had been completed, the much-needed Terminal 5 at Heathrow was built on time and to budget, for example. In comparison, countries with excellent skills and capacity to get things right can sometimes get them badly wrong. Construction of the yet-to-be-completed Berlin Brandenburg airport has been a catalogue of disasters; it is still at least two years from opening, and will be massively over-budget.

Another project that went well on the UK side of the Channel was the high-speed rail link to the Channel Tunnel, the so-called High Speed 1 (HS1). The country is now well on the way to building HS2, and the good experience with HS1 might seem to bode well for this, but this is a very different beast and already subject to intense criticism. There was a strong case for Heathrow T5 (and just as strong a case for one or more extra runways either here or at another SE England airport) and a strong(ish) case for HS1, but some critics see the planned high-speed line as an expensive vanity project rather than an essential addition to the country’s infrastructure.

HS1 shaved some time off the London to Paris/Brussels journey time and provided a high-class modern terminus at St Pancras, plus a brand-new station at Ebbsfleet in Kent, effectively replacing Ashford as the secondary UK stop. There were major tunnels to be built, as well as the two new stations and the line itself, but the line followed the route of the existing track, which minimised some of the problems of building from scratch.

But, although the project was delivered to budget, the cost of £51.3 million per kilometre was much more than that of the Paris-Strasbourg TGV line, also completed in 2007. To a large extent, this is an inevitable consequence of building a railway line in a densely populated country with a number of natural obstacles to overcome. Suffice it to say that building a high-speed railway line in the UK is very expensive.

Not surprising then to read headlines such as this even in 2015 – Revealed: HS2 ‘abysmal value for money’ at 10 times the cost of high-speed rail in Europe.  At the time, the project cost was estimated as £42.6bn, at a cost of £78.5m per kilometre (£125m per mile). But it was widely expected that these costs would increase and a new report – based on an estimate commissioned by the Department for Transport – lends credence to this. As reported in the Sunday Times, building of HS2 to cost £403m per mile, bringing the cost of the entire two-phase project up to £104bn. [For those who noticed the discrepancy with the figures quoted, the £125m/mile above is for the entire project, while £403/mile is for phase 1, including the very expensive first stage in north London.]

Michael Byng, the expert who produced the latest figures, was asked to comment on the costs:

Asked why the project was so costly, Byng said: “We live in a very heavily populated, property-owning democracy which has very high use of railways, so land is very expensive and disruption is very expensive. People have rights and are prepared to stand up for them. “The railways have also inherited the malaise of British construction — an inflation of consultants. In the rest of the world soft costs, such as consultancy and planning, make up 12-15%. Here it can be as high as 35%.”

In the meantime, the government insists that this latest estimate is way too high (although the budget has now increased to £55.7bn). At the same time, the route of the second phase through Yorkshire was announced. Not surprisingly, this has been controversial, leading to headlines such as HS2 route to destroy new homes in Yorkshire, while not providing any stations in the area.

But, to a large extent, the details are unimportant. The cost may be justified by the benefits. However, the ostensible reason for starting the project (apart from having a bright shiny new high-speed railway to show the world) was to provide more capacity as an alternative to the over-crowded west and east coast mainlines. The problem is that there may be much more cost-effective ways of doing this.

For those committed to the project (which would, of course, be very embarrassing to cancel at this stage) everything is rosy. But passenger projections are very high, which seems questionable given that the already high cost of rail travel would be subject to a large premium for HS2. It is likely that trains would be used by business people (although many companies will surely look askance at the cost) and leisure travellers who have booked well in advance to get more affordable fares. Breaking even will be a challenge for any franchisee.

But the economic case is made partly on the basis that shorter journey times mean people can be more productive, which takes no account of the realities of laptops, tablets and wifi. There is also a somewhat Panglossian quote from Philippa Oldham of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in the BBC piece:

"By freeing up the capacity on the East Coast Mainline, West Coast Mainline, through the HS2 route we'll be able to shift some of our freight network onto the rail network from the road network," she said. "So that will ease congestion on our roads providing that we have an integrated transport strategy."

As Boris Johnson might say, go whistle on that one. If HS2 is not to become a massively expensive white elephant, some serious thinking has to be done. The first phase, to Birmingham, is not due to open till 2026, a date that the National Audit Office says is unlikely to be met, with the links to Manchester and Leeds not being ready till 2033. Well before then, the £50-100bn (not including trains) could have been spent on more affordable conventional railway upgrades and more motorways.