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Ministers push ahead with High Speed 2 to Birmingham

Britain’s £32bn High Speed 2 (HS2) line remains viable even though the economic case for the project has worsened, transport experts and politicians said this week.

But they stressed that the project will only deliver value for money if the full Y network is built.

Earlier this month transport secretary Justine Greening gave her backing to an amended scheme that includes additional tunnelling through the Chilterns and other sensitive locations. The cost of the entire Y network running from London to Birmingham and then to Manchester and Leeds is now estimated at £32.7bn.

Weak economics in a weak economy

But documents published alongside Greening’s announcement showed that the benefit to cost ratio for the first £18.8bn stretch of the line from London to the West Midlands has been revised down again to 1.4 to 1.

This was a further reduction from an update last February, which put the benefit to cost ratio at 1.6 to 1. This analysis, which excludes wider economic benefits, had previously stood at 2.4 to 1.

Transport planner Steer Davies Gleave non-executive director Jim Steer said the cut was more a reflection of the current economic climate than a condemnation of the £32.7bn scheme.

“The fundamental reason the economic case has weakened is the poor economic climate — the UK is in the weakest position and worst place it’s been in for a while,” said Steer, who is also director of high speed lobby group Greengauge 21.

RAC Foundation director Professor Stephen Glaister was less keen on the scheme. He said the business case for HS2 was “weak at best”. “There are scores of other transport projects, big and small, both road and rail, which would deliver greater benefits much sooner,” he said. Commons Public Accounts Committee chairman Margaret Hodge suggested that “in constrained times you look for your best value”.

Cheaper by tunnel?

Documents supporting Greening’s announcement showed that the latest scheme construction costs are actually £200M to £300M less than the previous version, largely due to increased tunnelling. Greening said that by extending the tunnelled sections there were less deep cuttings and so less spoil to remove.

Engineers that NCE spoke to said that it was unclear how the costs were arrived at. Hodge said the claim was the “boldest” of statements.

Many observers — including the House of Commons Transport Committee — have sought assurances that any hybrid bill for the project includes powers to build the full Y network serving Manchester and Leeds as this would improve the economic case.

There are some questions about the Y network that have to be explored

Jim Steer, Steer Davies Gleave

The benefit to cost ratio of the full Y network including Manchester and Leeds also dropped in the latest update. But at 1.6 to 1 it is still higher than that which would apply to building section one without section two. It originally stood at 2.2 to 1.

A hybrid bill to enable construction of the first section of the route is due to be introduced to parliament by 2013/2014.

High Speed Rail journey savings including central London

High Speed Rail journey savings including central London

A detailed route for the second phase has yet to be decided and Steer said this issue was not clear cut. “London to the West Midlands is exactly the right thing to do,” he said. “But there are some questions about the Y network that have to be explored and which don’t come up with London to the West Midlands [as the best route north].

“There is a direct benefit of capacity for this section by building high speed rail. When you get north of Birmingham, that simplicity of argument is not possible.”

The siting of stations remains an issue. “You wouldn’t have a London to Manchester line and not take high speed rail to Liverpool; you wouldn’t have a Manchester to Liverpool line and not have a high speed connection to Preston,” said Steer. “More discussion is needed.”

Rapid work is needed to firm up the route of phase two, for a detailed route to be settled on by the end of 2014. To meet this timetable the Department for Transport said it wants to receive advice from HS2 on the route options for phase 2 by March 2012.

This will be the first time that a proper alignment of the route for the remaining Y route between the West Midlands and Manchester and Leeds, including intermediate stations. It will then carry out a period of engagement and consultation to inform the choice of a preferred route.

Assuming the hybrid bill for the first section is brought to Parliament by the end of 2013, the government hopes to receive Royal Assent by 2015. Construction would begin soon after, with the first leg between London and the West Midlands, including a connection to Heathrow airport and High Speed 1 is expected to be ready by 2026.

The Y legs further north to Manchester and Leeds could be open in 2032/2033, the government said. Steer said construction was timed to follow on from Crossrail, lessening the impact on taxpayers. “The expenditure highs don’t begin until 2017, when Crossrail winds down,” said Steer. Just £750M is expected to be spent in the current Parliament, largely on detailed design and work to prepare the Environmental Impact Assessment.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Barry Walton

    How high speed will this development really be? It might be useful for the NCE to restate the high speed of the system rather than occasionally mention 250 mph trains. According to the Eurostar schedules and accepting a distance between St Pancras and Gare du Nord the average speed varies between 117 mp and 136 mph. (2h 16 min to 2h 35 m). You can get from Euston to Birmingham in 1 hr 24 mins (quickest) now. How much of this time do they expect to knock off?

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