Trials, tribulations and tunnels: Decision time for HS2

14 December 2011 (Last Updated December 14th, 2011 18:30)

Further delays to a decision on the future of England's proposed HS2 line have seen various debates erupt. Now that a tunnel could ease opposition in the southeast, could transport secretary Justine Greening approve the highly contentious project in early 2012?

Trials, tribulations and tunnels: Decision time for HS2

High Speed 2, the proposed high-speed rail link between London and the North of England, Yorkshire and the Midlands, has caused considerable debate.

Although agreed in principle by all three main political parties in the UK, the subtleties and details surrounding the line's route and profitability have caused significant delays to a decision that is now overdue.

Linking cities such as Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds to London and Heathrow airport would boost the economy in the West Midlands, northwest England and Yorkshire by reducing travel times and boosting trade links.

Should the project receive approval, construction could start as early as 2017 with the first trains running along the line by 2025. Obtaining a decision either way, however, has become a prolonged issue.

Tunnelling for approval

"Transport economists Chris Castles and David Parish were both tasked by local councils to compile a report into HS2."

HS2 has proven to be a highly contentious issue, with the speaker of the House of Commons having to call for an end to name-calling in debate sessions following renewed mud-slinging from both sides as the decision neared.

Should the scheme receive approval, it is thought the Conservative leader and Prime Minister David Cameron could face a backbench revolt, with the possible resignation of three ministers whose constituencies would be affected by the proposed route.

Although a decision was originally expected before the Christmas period of 2011, this was once again delayed by transport secretary Justine Greening, who did confirm that a decision is to be expected in January 2012.

The transport secretary is now thought to be considering a tunnel for a section of the route through the Chilterns in southeast England, designed to win over considerable opposition to the line based upon the designated route.

The proposed 1.5-mile long tunnel, estimated to cost up to £500m, would be budgeted for via savings made elsewhere along the proposed route and would also join up two other tunnels around the Amersham area.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England had originally claimed tunnelling would be essential if HS2 was to be built through the Chilterns, given the area's long-standing picturesque reputation.

Although the use of such tunnels is expected to ease tensions created by staunch opposition of the projected route, it is not the line's only hurdle for approval. Various reports and investigations into the HS2's costs and projections have threatened to derail the project for good.

Poor value for money

Transport economists Chris Castles and David Parish were both tasked by local councils to compile a report into HS2.

"Linking cities like Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds to London and Heathrow airport would boost the economy in those areas."

They came to the conclusion that benefits to the taxpayer could be as little as half of the projected cost of £34bn - leaving a 'black hole' of approximately £8.5bn needing to be found from either increased taxes or budget cuts to other programmes in order to finance the project.

The discrepancy was accredited to the projected passenger numbers compiled by project leaders, with both Castles and Paris arguing they were too high to be realistic.

The report also argued that the extra capacity produced by HS2 could be achieved much more quickly and cheaply through improvements to current infrastructure and services, rather than a costly investment into new, high-speed lines.

The authors of the report said: "We found the economic case for HS2 is deeply flawed and as a consequence very weak."

Existing infrastructure more important

The same sentiments were echoed through a comprehensive survey conducted by the Institute of Directors (IoD), which found that improvements to existing intercity and commuter lines were considered more important than HS2, with some directors expressing concern over a perceived lack of value for money.

Institute of Directors director general Simon Walker said: "Good transport infrastructure is crucial to IoD members up and down the country. Businesses are not happy with the current state of the UK's infrastructure, but our survey of IoD members shows that directors want to see improvements to existing roads and rail services above all."

The IoD survey found that 38% of its members considered HS2 to represent poor value for money in comparison to 30% who considered it good value, with far more members expressing concerning as to the state of urban roads and motorways than the country's rail infrastructure.

The Department for Transport refuted claims of over-enthusiastic projections, insisting the modelling had been calculated using conservative assumptions and an industry-recognised approach in order to forecast the demand for such a service.

Huge benefits for society?

Questioning the profitability of HS2, however, is not shared by everyone with a vested interest into the outcome of any such approval or rejection.

"High Speed 2, the proposed high-speed rail link between London and the North, Yorkshire and the Midlands, has caused debate."

As well as inciting a rare common ground between the coalition government and the rivalling Labour Party that such a connection would prove beneficial for the cities including Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, any such link has also received support giving its ability to ease spiralling capacity problems.

Speaking at the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport's unveiling of its Vision for 2035 report, Sir Dave Rowlands commented on the need for improved high-speed networks within the UK in order to solve what could become a chronic capacity problem on the nation's rails and roads.

"Road pricing could be inevitable, but high-speed 2 could solve capacity problems for a generation, if not more," said Rowlands, who added the "HS2 could provide huge societal benefits."

Given that the current government expects HS2 to generate £27bn in fares and £43.7bn of economic benefits, against a projected cost of £32bn, it is widely expected that Justine Greening will risk a Conservative backbench rebellion and rubber-stump the first phase of the high-speed line.

Although, with further feasibility and environmental impact studies expected to be published prior to the announcement, it is not beyond reason that many more spanners could be thrown into the works before the first steel is laid.