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Overtime and Over Budget

As things stand, the first phase of the project, between London and Birmingham, is due to open at the end of 2026. The second phase – to Leeds and Manchester – could be complete by 2035. While the project is expected to bring significant benefits to Birmingham and other cities across the UK’s flourishing Northern Powerhouse, HS2 has run into some issues. 

Recently leaked reports show that the project bill could be far larger than originally thought. The National Audit Office has said that the full complexity and risk factors associated with the high-speed rail project were not fully accounted for by the Department for Transport and HS2 Ltd at the outset. Initial cost estimates of £56bn back in 2015 are far off the mark according to a recent independent government review that suggests the real figure is closer to £106bn. 

Justifying the Cost

Despite poor risk assessment resulting in delays to the project and budgets being stretched thin, these challenges have not put a stop to the progress and work on HS2 continues. While challenges remain and there are clearly lessons to be learned, things are moving along a positive track. 

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed that the link will be built. In his announcement, Mr Johnson said: “the cost forecasts have exploded, but poor management to date has not detracted from the fundamental value of the project…we will, in line with the review, investigate the current costs to identify where savings can be made in phase one without a total redesign.”

The Cost of Not Delivering

Many influential figures have come out in support of the scheme. Matthew Fell, CBI Chief UK Policy Director, sums it up neatly: “HS2 is an ambitious project and the National Audit Office’s report usefully highlights the challenges of delivering large-scale infrastructure. But what is clear to the CBI, and business generally, is the colossal cost of not delivering HS2.” 

Indeed, HS2 is just one example of over-ambitious, over-budget projects of which the British public has grown weary. It is this issue of public trust that may well propel HS2 beyond its challenges towards full delivery and realisation because it is precisely this over-promise, under-deliver scenario that the new Conservative government are determined to avoid in order to retain their stronghold both through 2020 and at the next election in 2024. 

In our post-Brexit landscape where the public has grown weary and untrusting of any government promise, a boost to confidence is needed now more than ever. This means that determined efforts are sure to be made by the government to have something to show for HS2 other than blueprints. It promotes trust in the government and unity across the regions at a time when not delivering on a promise is a very risky option.

Nowhere is this determination more apparent than in Birmingham where locals are arguing that “going ahead with HS2 would make it easier for the government to scrap the third runway at Heathrow.” It is indeed a strong alternative to the much-opposed third airport runway and a good way for the government to demonstrate their commitment to infrastructure and impress the UK at large by completing one of the biggest transport projects in the country. When we look at HS2 through this political lens, things certainly look hopeful for its outlook and it gives another boost to this ambitious transport scheme. 

Prioritising Transparency

Transparency is key to the success of the HS2 project and it is now up to the Department of Transport and all key figures associated with the scheme to focus on providing realistic cost and timeline assessments as well as stringent risk profiles. This will foster a sense of trust with the general public by painting a realistic picture of how things will pan out – it will also create space for key recommendations and improvements to be made for the ongoing success of the project. 

While the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee has suggested a series of “quick wins” through alternative transport projects to HS2 that could potentially save up to £128bn, this approach misses the entire point of the original scheme. Because the fact remains that HS2 is one of the most exciting transport projects ever designed and, on completion, its impact will resonate throughout the UK where increased connectivity will open up opportunities like never before. 

The positive effects will likely be felt strongest across the northern regions where the railways are especially dysfunctional and local services are in dire need of improvement. This proves that HS2 is not only important in its own right but also through its enhancement of the existing rail network particularly around Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham where current local services are falling exceptionally short and local commuters are suffering. It may be a divisive project, but it cannot be denied that the service provided by HS2 would fill a large gap in our transport system.