The UK Moves Forward on a Massive Upgrade of its National Railway Network
Following characteristic delays, Boris Johnson has confirmed that High Speed 2 (HS2), the UK’s $100 billion+ high-speed rail line, is to go ahead.
Large-scale infrastructure projects inevitably face delays and end up costing significantly more than their original budgets. Once the final product is unveiled, however, everyone forgets about this and marvel at the ingenuity of modern civil engineering feats.
If you are living in the UK, chances are that Europe’s biggest infrastructure project, High Speed 2 (HS2), immediately comes to mind – it is the UK’s future high-speed rail network that will connect the North of England and London.
Opinions are divided, however.
Supporters say that HS2 will provide a much-needed boost to rail capacity and connectivity between Britain’s Capital and its Northern cities, create thousands of jobs, and facilitate economic development. Opponents argue that the project is ill-planned, detrimental to the environment, and is in danger of folding, wasting hundreds of billions of pounds.
While both sides have a point – no project of this size is ever truly perfect – we may now be closer to seeing which one will prevail as correct as HS2 is given the go-ahead by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. On February 11, he announced that his cabinet had given the go-ahead for the whole of the HS2 high-speed rail network’s plans, with work expected to start within a matter of weeks.
An outline map of the high-speed rail lines in the UK showing existing LGV/Channel Tunnel and High Speed 1 to London, along with the planned High Speed 2 lines. Image used courtesy of user Cnbrb via Wikimedia Commons
HS2 to Proceed Despite Spiraling Costs
To avoid what he called “further blowouts” caused by HS2’s management company, HS2 Ltd, Johnson said that he would create a full-time ministerial post for overseeing HS2.
“The cabinet has given high-speed rail the green signal. We are going to get this done,” Johnson said, adding that he hoped the first trains would run by the end of the decade.
Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, welcomed the commitment to HS2 but said that there “was a lot of detail lacking” on what would happen in the north.
“The prime minister has today listened and gone a considerable distance towards the case I made at the weekend for a new, integrated east-west and north-south railway for the north of England. That is why I welcome what he has announced today.”
Burnham also asked the government to draw up a firm timetable for Northern Powerhouse Rail, as well as the northern HS2 spurs to Leeds and Manchester, while demanding upgrades to the north’s existing railway infrastructure which has a less than favorable reputation with northern commuters.
A network map of the HS2 railway routes once implemented. Image used courtesy of Hs2.org.uk
More HS2 Controversy Yet to Come
Conservative backbench MPs have constituencies where HS2 will run through and negatively affect.
Some of these backbench MPs were critical of the decision. North West Leicestershire MP, Andrew Bridgen, said that HS2 would be an “albatross round the neck” of Johnson’s government and declared it “unloved, unwanted and grossly mismanaged”.
Environmental groups are also unhappy – the likes of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and RSPB have always been deeply opposed to HS2 and will stop at nothing to try and curtail its development.
Emma Marsh, of the RSPB, said HS2 would destroy wildlife without “a viable plan for how it is going to mitigate or compensate for these losses” while Greenpeace’s director, John Sauven, said that Johnson will have the “dubious honour of being this century’s largest destroyer of ancient woodlands in the UK”.
Is it Time for the UK to Catch Up?
Despite pioneering the railway as we know it now, the UK has fallen behind. Most other small and wealthy countries where domestic air travel is not feasible (like it is in the U.S., for example) have high-speed rail networks connecting their major cities.
Britain’s train services have received complaints related to overcrowding, pricey, and regularly late or completely canceled – they have even been cited as the worst in Europe and criticized when compared with the likes of France’s TGV or the Berlin-Munich high-speed railway. And much of the good rail infrastructure that has built in the UK has failed to stretch beyond London.
Although HS2’s costs are huge, its cost-effectiveness murky, its design complicated, and its economic impact questionable, something needs to be done to solve the UK’s rail problems. Whether that solution is HS2 remains to be seen. For the time being, however, it is full speed ahead.