HS2: The train going nowhere

Boris Johnson loves mad grandiose building projects ( remember the third London airport in the Thames Estuary) and more recently a tunnel/bridge under the Irish sea from Scotland to Northern Ireland.

Picturew of the design for the first HS2 trains

But what is emerging is that that even the most basic grandiose project -London’s Crossrail link and the high speed railway from London to Birmingham can’t be built on time to cost or even properly completed. A failure to integrate Crossrail with the rest of the railway system and continual cost rises for HS2 are the main reasons for delays.

MPs on the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee last week achieved one first – getting HS2 to provide some proper figures on the real costs. The entire HS2 project – if ever built from London to Scotland – will be £98 billion if not more. The first phase from London to Birmingham now has a budget of £44.6 billion – of which £11 billion has already been spent but we won’t see any results for the travelling public until 2029 at the earliest if not 2032. And probably in reality even later.

What is more disturbing is that service will initially run only from Birmingham to Old Oak Common in west London -not to London Euston where it can connect with other services.

Whitehall still quarrelling over the plans

Worse still internal Whitehall quarrelling means that they haven’t even fixed the most crucial arrangement – what will the Euston terminus look like.

“The redevelopment of Euston station is currently estimated to cost £2.6 billion. Despite HS2 Ltd telling us last year that the design of the station was ready for planning consent, the Department has spent the past 15 months looking for cost saving options and efficiency opportunities, including the potential for a smaller station.

” HS2 Ltd asserts that it is getting close to the point where the programme will literally run out of time if a decision is not made soon, and that Old Oak Common is being set as the London terminus when the railway first opens to decouple it from the risks at Euston.”

Gigantic building site at Euston. Pic credit: Global Railway Review

This is an extraordinary situation. It is made much worse because the area around Euston Station is now one gigantic building site after homes, shops and private businesses that border onto the existing station were demolished. And people living next to the site are being moved because of the noise and dust. And all for a new terminus whose configuration has still to be determined by the Department of Transport and which could be smaller than currently planned.

Further up the line there are disputes involving the land they are purchasing, environmental damage and pollution problems created by the development.

Volume of complaints rising

The MPs report: “We are already concerned about the volume of complaints on disruption from the programme which does not bode well for the future as more communities will be impacted as construction progresses. HS2 Ltd estimates it has handled 124,000 queries over the past three years and interacted with over 76,000 people along the route.

….”the number of complaints from the public about High Speed 2 has increased as main construction on Phase One has started. Complaints to the Independent Construction Commissioner HS2 rose to 86 in the first quarter of 2021 from 74 in the previous quarter. The majority of complaints are about the impact of construction on roads and traffic, vegetation clearance and about noise and vibration. Due to the scale of the programme and the time until the railway is complete, complaints are likely to increase.”

As part of its ” levelling up ” programme the government has promised to reskill the nation so people can get jobs as part of the regeneration of Britain post Brexit. Yet again the MPs point to further failures. The much trumpeted National College for High Speed Rail was a failure in attracting students and has had to be renamed the National College for Advanced Transport & Infrastructure and, most recently, merged with the University of Birmingham.

The MPs report: “The Department admits that the performance of the college has been disappointing and hopes that its latest merger, new leadership and new curriculum from September 2021 will be an opportunity to get the best out of the arrangement. Yet the Department’s involvement with the college has been limited as it falls under the Department for Education’s accountability remit.”

As for extending the railway to Scotland via Leeds and Sheffield that is in doubt and could be scaled back to Crewe. This has been partly confirmed by Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, who in an interview yesterday with the Financial Times has cast doubt on whether the line from Birmingham to Leeds along the eastern side of England will ever be built – hinting that other projects may have priority.

We want to make sure we get trains to Leeds in a way that actually benefits people on the network and not blindly follow some plan invented 15 to 20 years ago which no longer benefits people.” he said.

This completely contradicts what he said only in May when he promised the government would “complete HS2 and include HS2 on the eastern leg to Leeds”. All this suggests that costs must be mounting up with another U turn in prospect.

If this is levelling up – it is farcical

So what do we have here? An extremely expensive part built railway that may not even initially link Birmingham and central London beset with issues and aeons away from the dream of a high speed line linking Scotland with central London.

If this is to be an example of ” levelling up ” Britain it is just farcical. Meanwhile in the European Union we left the high speed train network goes from strength to strength with new lines and a sleeper train network planned that will reduce the need for air travel – all part financed by British train customers as most of the companies running our train services are owned by state rail companies based in the EU.

Our new high speed train system is going nowhere soon and causing nothing but pain and disruption.

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Westminster Confidential

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HS2 Fiasco: Should these two top Whitehall figures get the sack for covering it up?

Bernadette Kelly, permanent secretary at the Department for Transport Pic credit: gov.uk
Mark Thurston, the £605,000 a year head of HS2. Pic credit: HS2

The damning report by the Public Accounts Committee out today tells you everything you already knew about HS2 – the high speed rail link from Euston to Birmingham and eventually Manchester and Leeds.

This rail line – at one stage facing being scrapped by Boris Johnson – earned a reprieve despite costs escalating almost out of control from costing £55bn when it was commissioned to an estimated minimum £88 billion today. Even commitments to petitioners against the scheme were wrongly calculated at £245m when the figure is now nearer £1.2 billion .And that may not be the end of the story as costs could still rise while the public will get a much delayed service with fewer trains.

The report also shows there is a huge problem with the redevelopment of Euston station – used by millions of mainline travellers and commuters – which no doubt will create another out of control of budget. We still don’t know the real cost for that.

But what I found really distasteful that Bernadette Kelly, the highly paid permanent secretary at the Department for Transport and Mark Thurston, the UK’s highest paid public official in charge of HS2 – he is on an eyewatering £605,350 salary and got a £46,000 bonus despite not keeping public money under control- conspired to cover up their failings and keep information from the public and Parliament.

The report is quite clear desperate officials were well aware that public money was going down the toilet but decided NOT to tell Parliament and be less than honest in the official annual accounts of HS2 to disguise the mess they faced.

Bernadette Kelly revealed to MPs in March that she had undertaken four separate assessments to see if the project was viable last year – but neglected to tell MPs anything about it when she appeared before them. She claimed it was ” commercial sensitivities ” that held her back.

This is serious stuff. As the report says: ” We are disappointed by the Permanent Secretary’s response to our concerns about her failure to explicitly inform the Committee of the programme’s delays and overspend when asked about the general health of the project.

“This was something that an accounting officer should share with the Committee. Failure of an Accounting Officer to provide accurate information to Parliament is potentially a breach of the Civil Service Code and a breach of Parliamentary Privilege. “

To put it bluntly she may have broken the Civil Service code which lays down the ethics and rules governing how officials should behave and she may have lied to Parliament.

In that case I think there should be an inquiry and if she is found to have behaved as badly as that she should be disciplined or even sacked.

Mark Thurston appears to made sure that his company accounts did not give too many hints of the failure to control money. Why he should have a bonus when his costs went sky high – is a mystery to me. He should pay it back and questions asked whether he is the right man for the job..

I agree with Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP and deputy chair of the committee: “This PAC report on HS2 is one of the most critical, in both the transparency of Government and the handling of a project, that I have seen in my nine years in total on the committee.

“The Permanent Secretary appeared before the committee in October 2018 and again in May 2019. In March 2019 HS2 Ltd formally told the Department it had breached the terms of the Development Agreement, and would be unable to deliver the programme to cost and schedule – yet the Permanent Secretary did not inform the committee on either appearance that the programme was in trouble.

“This is a serious breach of the department’s duty to Parliament and hence to the public, which as the report says, will undermine confidence. Furthermore, the PAC was in the dark about serious cost overruns and was therefore unable to do its duty to inform Parliament that value for money .on the project was at risk.”

The United Kingdom used to be regarded as a world leader in upholding high standards in public life. The actions of these two individuals in trying to cover their tracks is more in line with a banana republic.