Will HS2 be kicked into the long grass?

The much criticised flagship HS2 rail project, which seeks eventually to build a new £50+ billion high-speed rail route between London and Scotland, has had a difficult few months.

Phase 1 from London Euston to Birmingham is due for completion by 2026, whilst the construction of Phase 2 – a Y-configured route from Birmingham to take in both Manchester and Leeds - is scheduled to operate from 2033. 

Recent confirmation of heavy investment in several much smaller rail projects in the North and the Midlands, a series of legal challenges to HS2 and even bureaucratic foul-ups at the Department for Transport (DfT) have all been negative for the project’s future.  And, at the macro-economic level, the UK economy is basically flat-lining thereby substantially deferring the year when the UK’s public sector net debt (PSND) will eventually start to fall – it recently passed through the previously unimaginable £1 trillion threshold.

As such, further deep public expenditure cuts seem certain as the UK seeks to protect its treasured AAA sovereign debt rating. Whilst the HS2 project has many flaws, such as its environmental impact, its weakest case remains financial. Quite simply, the numbers don’t stack up. And, even assuming that the optimistic passenger growth projections until 2033 are accurate, it is difficult to discern how a decent commercial return can be generated. A Tory minister was quoted in the Spectator recently as saying that the project was 'effectively dead'.

Compared with other EU countries, HS2’s projected Phase 1 capital costs per mile are way higher, whilst its claimed financial benefits are seriously inadequate. A Benefit-Cost Ratio (BCR) analysis by the DfT for Phase 1 barely shows a positive return, even before many risk factors. Not surprisingly, the DfT prefers to focus on the various contentious non-commercial benefits. In times of economic crisis, previous Governments have axed major projects. Within the next three years, the highly uneconomic HS2 project is a strong candidate to be shunted into the sidings.