The UK’s High-Speed Rail 2 (HS2) project has just seen the Eastern leg cancelled.
HS2 was always one of the most disastrous megaprojects. It began with the former Labour Government and always had a hollow business case. The project was then taken on by the Conservative and Liberal coalition, then the Conservatives. Projected costs have grown from £34 billion to £106 billion and rising. The final cost of HS2 would probably reach around £200 billion. But cost does not equate to benefit as it became clear that it wasn’t going to deliver benefit for the very people it was supposedly intended for. It was used as a political tool – and helped generate many ‘red wall’ votes from the North and Midlands, with the promise of ‘levelling up’. The reality is that it would never have done such a thing.
The Covid pandemic and attitudes to travel have changed fundamentally. Meetings can be more easily, cheaply and efficiently conducted online. HS2 costs have risen by another £1.7 billion during the pandemic. Money is short. People are more aware of the environmental damage that HS2 would bring. They found out that it would never become CO2 neutral in its lifespan. Costs rose and rose. Extensive ‘optimism bias’ was found in the original cost projections. Benefits were overstated. Politicians were trapped.
And now the Conservative Government has to extract themselves without losing too much face or too many votes.
The English Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, said: “You can wait decades and dig up virgin countryside and plough through villages, but you have to wait an awful lot longer and it costs an awful lot more.
“I’m afraid that we are going to be building a huge amount of new line but what we’re doing is doing it in the most efficient possible way and to bring the maximum possible commuter benefits.”
The solution was always there: improve the existing network.
Even if HS2 were to be cancelled in its entirety, the damage to innocent communities, the destruction of land, the environment and the decimation of the value of people’s houses cannot be undone. Many of the communities along the route will never look the same again.
The British Government must be wishing that this project had never been allowed to be born.