AOn the face of it, the scarred earth in central Birmingham where HS2’s future Midlands terminus will stand hasn’t changed much since 2018. Back then, ahead of another Conservative party conference, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling donned a helmet to affirm that the work was in progress, in front of bulldozers specially towed for a Sunday team.
Now that the government has set itself further spending cuts, the vast spending on the high-speed rail line has again come into question as inflation bites. Facts on the ground will once again matter – and although the vast viaduct and new Birmingham Curzon Street station only exist in CGI form above ground, foundations have been laid below.
Millions of cubic meters of earth were moved and reinforced concrete piles 20 meters long were capped with cages formed from increasingly expensive British steel poles filled with increasingly expensive concrete.
These will support giant V-shaped piers that will support an 800 meter viaduct. Technical feats await us: two sections of more than 100 meters, with steel beams and concrete decks, will be preformed and launched over the Digbeth Canal. New contractors will then construct the vaulted glass station adjoining the historic stone building on Curzon Street, to accommodate HS2’s high-speed trains by the end of the decade.
At least that’s the plan – reaffirmed in principle by some, but not all, ministers last week. Other voices, however, wondered quite where the project will end.
Cost is the obvious concern, with runaway inflation in an energy-intensive industry adding to the everlasting debate over a program estimated to be worth more than £100billion. The growth plan published in the Chancellor’s mini-budget last month promised to go ahead with big infrastructure projects – but the government has of course already abandoned big promises about HS2. As the Bank of England spends £65billion to calm markets and the government is determined to cut other spending, uncertainty is once again swirling around the project.
According to the latest March update, the costs for the first phase of HS2, linking London to Birmingham, were within budget. Assuming work on Phase 2a to Crewe continues and Phase 2b to Manchester continues, the Department for Transport calculates the total bill at £74bn at 2019 prices, excluding any HS2 East. The original eastern leg strain to Leeds is now expected to only extend to the East Midlands, but it has gone back to the drawing board and its costs are undetermined.
Around £4.3bn of emergency funds remain within HS2’s Phase One budget of £44.6bn, which could cover some of the rising raw material costs – including types used in a specified program to have a lifespan of 120 years. Birmingham HS2 contractors say the steel they use has gone from around £800 to £1,200 a tonne, concrete from £110 to £140 a cubic metre. Part of this pain is borne by the contractor, the rest by the taxpayer.
The overall budget has been reformulated twice to account for inflation during HS2’s gestation – although the general price hikes are only a fraction of the ballooning bill from its £32bn of origin. Tony Berkeley, the peer who broke from the Oakervee government review of HS2 in 2019 to write a dissenting account, says the true cost is now closer to £155billion – a figure HS2 says it does not recognise. Despite spending £15billion so far, Berkeley says the government would save £147billion by stopping now, recouping £8billion by reallocating or selling the land it has acquired.
Among conservative voters, supporters have always been rarer than opponents of HS2. Some outrage was nonetheless expressed by HS2 supporters when clothing chain Next, owned by its Tory counterpart Lord Wolfson, suggested scrapping the project altogether in a stock market filing just before the party conference. At a pro-HS2 conference reception at a champagne bar in Birmingham last week – addressed by local MP Andrew Mitchell, rather than a transport minister – a funder pointed out that 27,000 jobs are currently supported by HS2: “Does it [Wolfson] eliminate all of Next’s workforce? »
The overwhelming suspicion of weak support persists. Later in the week, the launch of the first of six tunnel boring machines in west London was hailed by HS2 chief executive Mark Thurston as demonstrating the project’s ‘brilliant momentum’. The quote provided by new railway minister Kevin Foster spoke of a historic moment – but only in ‘helping to connect London to Birmingham’.
With tunnels running through the Chilterns and much of Old Oak Common in west London already flattened, this phase looks assured. As one fan put it: “It’s too far.” But HS2 supporters have no doubt that the program remains an obvious target for cuts and that politicians may be looking for a totemic sacrifice. With the Golborne Link – a 13-mile branch of HS2 designed to speed up journeys to Scotland – already axed this year, the remaining opportunities for obvious savings are few.
The cuts would also affect Tory MP and chairman of the transport select committee, Huw Merriman. The economic case for HS2, he says, has already been significantly weakened by the scrapping of the northeast branch. Speaking at the party conference, he said: ‘Without going through Birmingham, it probably wouldn’t have made sense to have started in the first place.
The intrigue has thickened since the Prime Minister, Liz Truss, pledged in an interview to build a new Northern Powerhouse Rail line running the full length of west-east England from Liverpool to Hull, with a stop at Bradford – adding an estimated £25billion extra to the integrated rail plan, which the rail industry and government departments painstakingly crafted last year. This could indeed be good news for the north. It would be welcomed by Merriman and his committee, who had suggested the government should upgrade the £96billion rail plan to maximize the benefits, but expected a polite rejection of that idea in the DfT’s response. to their report.
In light of Truss’ comments, it is believed that the DfT hastily rewrote this answer. Merriman said he hoped to see “more granularity” in the plan and what it would mean for northern cities, and get “the best value for money”. He said only the details would let them know ‘whether these revised plans will generate a greater return for the north and UK taxpayers, despite a higher initial cost’. The DfT will not comment further.
Some suggest that public commitment to a bigger northern rail powerhouse could give the government political cover to cut more HS2 without further alienating its northern constituencies.
While Bradford and Northern leaders understandably jumped on Truss’ commitment, all will know that until the line is fully designed, funded and built, there isn’t much to rely on. As Labour’s shadow Transport Secretary Louise Haigh noted, the Tories have now “promised NPR and HS2 in full more than 60 times before cutting both”.
It would have taken a brave minister to return to HS2 while in the hometown of West Midlands mayor Andy Street, a staunch supporter. The promise of better and faster journeys to London is already stimulating regeneration here. When completed, the Curzon Street development will open up a pedestrian route to the city’s growing ‘knowledge quarter’ in Digbeth, as well as a new tram line. As expensive or truncated as HS2 ultimately turns out, Birmingham will be well placed to count its worth.