Johnson won’t scrap HS2, but his review could make a big offer to the North

This week’s newspapers carried the intriguing suggestion that Boris Johnson might re-order the construction of High Speed Two so that the railway’s northern sections are constructed first.

The new review of HS2 ordered by Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, is theoretically empowered to make a decision on whether or not to proceed with it at all.

Yet whilst the idea of scrapping it altogether will strongly appeal to many activists and MPs, there doesn’t appear to be any real expectation that this will happen. It would certainly be an unusual start for a Prime Minister with a track record of enthusiasm for high-profile infrastructure projects, and key political supporters of the project such as Andy Street are on the commission.

One might perhaps expect Dominic Cummings, who has been quoted as calling HS2 a “disaster zone”, to perhaps drive a move against it. But as he attempts to overhaul the Government and prepare the country for a no-deal exit from the European Union in the autumn, it’s unlikely he’ll have the bandwidth to imprint himself as totally on the Prime Minister’s agenda as some myth-makers might suggest.

Shifting the order of construction, on the other hand, might be more plausible. At present the London-to-Birmingham stretch of the route is slated to open in 2026, with the northern extensions not expected to be running until 2033.

Lord Forsyth, who chairs the House of Lords Economic Committee, has warned the Government not to allow cost overruns on the southern leg of the line to leave insufficient funds to complete the northern sections, which would connect Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds.

This warning might chime with Lord Berkeley, a “railway expert and Labour peer” who has been appointed as deputy chair of the review. Berkeley is a strong critic of HS2, repeatedly challenged Department for Transport’s figures and warning about spiralling costs.

Building the northern stretch of the line first would be a big offer, in both practical and symbolic terms, to the North of England – no small consideration for a Prime Minister who, as a former Mayor of London, might risk being viewed as capital-focused. It could also open up the possibility of embarking on ‘HS3’, otherwise known as Northern Powerhouse Rail, sooner, or even extending the high-speed network to Scotland… and beyond?

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Iain Dale: Were the Prime Minister to pull the plug on HS2, would he call time on Heathrow expansion too?

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio, and is the author of the forthcoming book ‘Why can’t we all just get along’.

I have very mixed feelings about HS2. I am usually all in favour of visionary transport infrastructure projects. I rather liked the idea of the Boris Island Airport, and still regret that he didn’t make it part of his leadership campaign. I also think high speed rail is a good thing.

However, I still don’t think the business case for HS2 has really ever been properly made.  Capacity is clearly an issue on parts of the West Coast main line, but it seems to be the Manchester trains which suffer, rather than the Birmingham ones.

The Prime Minister is clearly minded to cancel the whole project, and hopes that the review announced this week will give him political cover. Quite how he will explain the waste of upwards of £7.2 billion I don’t know, but presumably the saving of a further £80 billion will be used to show how other parts of our transport system could be improved.

Of course, if HS2 is cancelled, one would quite reasonably wonder whether the third runway at Heathrow might be next on the list for a prime ministerial cull.

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A new Kantar poll puts the Conservatives on 42 per cent, with Labour trailing on 28 per cent and the Brexit Party on only five per cent. The Liberal Democrats were constant on 15 per cent.

So, a 14 per cent lead for Johnson. Is this a “Boris bounce”? None of the other polls have shown a lead anything like this big, so everyone should treat with a huge degree of scepticism. But since it is widely believed that there will be a general election by the end of November, this is not a bad place to start from.

But as ever, a Conservative election success surely relies on us leaving the EU on October 31st. If we don’t, quite a few of those per centage points will be shaved off by Nigel Farage.

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Talking of Farage, he has made clear that, if the Prime Minister signs up to any form of deal with the EU, the Brexit Party will stand candidates against every Conservative candidate up and down the country. The only way to avoid that would be for us to leave on 31 October with no deal.

That outcome seems ever more likely as each day and each exchange of letters with Donald Tusk takes place. But as with Farage, I have a feeling in my water that the prospect of a last-minute deal hasn’t entirely disappeared. Yet.

The purists may hate it, but in the end, we have surely to remain of the view that a good deal is better than no deal. The trouble is that few can see what would actually constitute a good deal from the UK viewpoint. We can all see what a bad deal looks like, of course. But how we get from that to a good deal is anyone’s guess. –

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The ‘N’ key to my laptop has come ustuck. Makes me thik a ew computer may be i order. I could stick it o agai , I suppose. But where’s the fu i that?

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This is my first and only week’s holiday of the year. I’m spending it in Norfolk doing nothing at all – apart from writing this, and two other columns.

And watching box sets. I’ve finished Designated Survivor on Netflix and have now started the Korean version. I’m quite used to watching programmes with subtitles, but normally I can pick up a few words of the language. Not Korean. It’s almost impossible to follow.

I’m also reading Andrew Roberts’ brilliant thousand page biography of Winston Churchill. I always find these doorstops of books incredibly intimidating, mainly because I normally only read before I go to sleep, and therefore only manage three pages a night. So I’m pleased I’m already on page 200. Right, time for another chapter…

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HS2 review: Transport Secretary Grant Shapps says Government under no obligation to ‘keep ploughing money’ into rail route

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said that the Government is under no obligation to “keep ploughing money” into the high-speed rail project HS2 after a review was announced of the infrastructure project.

The planned project, first linking London to Birmingham and then extending to Leeds and Manchester, has come under increasing scrutiny over spiralling costs.

The Government has announced that it is commissioning an independent review into the project to explore its merits and to see if costs could be reduced.

‘Ploughing more and more money into it’

Grant Shapps refused to rule out scrapping HS2 (Photo: BBC)

Mr Shapps told BBC News: “Just because you spent a lot of money on something should not mean that you just carry on ploughing more and more money into it.

“But what we’ve said and what Prime Minister made very clear during his leadership election is we want to see great infrastructure in this country, we want to see it stack up, we want to see it work for, you know, rail commuters, people right across the country.

“So we need to have a look at HS2, we need to make sure that it is under control, that the money is being well spent, if that is the way we go.

“And that is actually going to provide the benefits that the country wants. Until we’ve done that I can’t preempt the answer, until we’ve carried out that investigation.”

HS2 factors

HS2
High-speed rail HS2 (Photo: PA)

Former HS2 Ltd chairman Douglas Oakervee will lead the inquiry, with Lord Berkeley – a long-term critic of the high-speed railway scheme – acting as his deputy.

The DfT said the review, due by the autumn, will consider a number of factors relating to HS2, including its benefits, impacts, affordability, efficiency, deliverability, scope and phasing.

When pressed  on whether the project could be scrapped entirely, Mr Shapps said: “Well, clearly, you are going to look at something from scratch and you’re going to take into account all of the costs and all of the benefits… starting with a blank sheet, then of course the outcome could be any of these things.

“We want to build great infrastructure. That’s exactly our purpose. We believe in building infrastructure for the future. It’s got to be the right infrastructure. It’s got to be beneficial, for everybody, not just along the route, but for the whole of the United Kingdom.”

Cost reductions

An artist's impression of Birmingham's Curzon HS2 station (Photo: Grimshaw Architects/PA Wire)
An artist’s impression of Birmingham’s Curzon HS2 station (Photo: Grimshaw Architects/PA Wire)

The review’s terms of reference state that it will consider how much “realistic potential” there is for cost reductions by amending the scope of the project, such as reducing the speed of the trains and making Old Oak Common the London terminus “at least for a period”, instead of Euston.

It would also look at further changes to the route, including building only Phase 1, between London and Birmingham,  combining Phase 2a – extending the line to Crewe – with Phase 1 and altering plans for Phase 2b, which currently involves taking the line to Manchester and Leeds

The DfT said limited, largely preparatory work on the project will continue in parallel with the review.

The launch of the review comes amid growing concern that HS2 cannot be built to its current specification within the £55.7 billion budget.

A recent Financial Times report stated that HS2 Ltd chairman Allan Cook wrote to the DfT warning the final bill could reach as much as £85 billion.

The feared price hike is believed to be due to various factors including engineering costs, poor ground conditions, underestimating the cost to purchase land and property, and the expense of running trains at up to 225mph, which is faster than comparable projects.

‘The debate has gone round the houses too many times’

The Y shaped HS2 line will take place in three stages of development. (Source: Department of Transport)
The Y shaped HS2 line will take place in three stages of development. (Source: Department of Transport)

Industry groups, who support the project, criticised the review, which is the latest in a long-running debate around the project.

The Confederation of British Industry’s director of infrastructure, Tom Thackray, said: “The business message on HS2 is clear-cut – back it, build it, benefit from it. The debate has gone round the houses too many times.

“While it’s always helpful to review major projects like HS2 to ensure that value for money is delivered, the business case is well known.

“The approval of HS2 Phase One led to record levels of Foreign Direct Investment in the West Midlands, with more than 7,000 new jobs created in Birmingham as a direct result of HS2, and over 100,000 more. We have seen and are continuing to see similar benefits right across the proposed route.

“We firmly believe that committing to HS2 in full, once and for all, will spread the flow of investment across the Midlands, the North of England and into Scotland. The current poor connectivity in the North is a major obstacle to encouraging companies from growing in the region and is a barrier to inward investment.”

Additional reporting by Press Association.

More on HS2

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British railways reverse exit from Interrail

Passenger railway operators in the U.K. have struck a deal to stay inside the Interrail pan-European ticketing scheme just a day after announcing they would leave following a dispute with the company that runs the system.

“We are pleased to be able to tell passengers that we have reached agreement and will be remaining part of both the Interrail and Eurail passes,” the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), which represents British operators, tweeted on Thursday.

Interrail, which today offers tickets for 31 countries to European residents, has been running since the 1970s. The Eurail pass is available to those not based in Europe. Both are managed by the Dutch-based Eurail Group.

The split between the RDG and Eurail came after U.K. companies stopped taking part in a trial program for the Eurail ticket. British companies wanted to “secure a competitive position for their BritRail Pass,” which offers travellers tickets for the U.K. network, according to Eurail’s General Manager Carlo Boselli. RDG claimed it had been pushed out by Eurail.

The U-turn came minutes after recently-appointed British Transport Minister Grant Shapps called the move “counterproductive” and urged the RDG to to “reverse their decision.”

“Britain’s train companies never wanted to leave Interrail,” the RDG said just before announcing a deal had been reached. “Following the strong reaction to news of our departure we and Eurail, the company which runs Interrail, renewed talks.”

Eurail said it sold more than 300,000 Interrail tickets in 2018.

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