UK: HS2 Is On Track According To The Transport Committee

Last Updated: 20 December 2013
Article by Emily Murray

On Friday, the House of Commons Transport Committee published its second report on HS2, titled High speed rail: on track? Committee members will be making a statement in the Commons on the report next Thursday, 19 December.

In its first report (published in 2011) the Committee broadly came out in favour of the HS2 project concluding:

'There is a good case for proceeding with a high-speed rail network, principally because of the substantial improvements in capacity and connectivity that it would provide, not only for services to and from London but also between the major cities of the Midlands, the North and Scotland. There would also be substantial benefits to passengers and freight on the classic network from the released capacity that would result.'

Following the publication by the Government of a revised business case, and the recent research by KPMG on the project's possible regional economic benefits, the Committee felt a re-examination of the proposal was justified. It considered both the case for HS2, and also the benefits and costs of the project.

The case for HS2

The report considers the Government's argument in favour of HS2, namely that increasing rail capacity is necessary to accommodate rising demand from passengers and freight.

It notes that the Government has ruled out alternative solutions to the capacity issue, such as using price to control demand, expanding domestic aviation, increasing road capacity, and undertaking further works to the existing West Coast Main Line. The report goes on to consider views challenging the Government's arguments, including accusations of basing the proposal on questionable predictions as to future passenger demand and unsubstantiated claims that the West Coast Main Line is unable to cope with any increased demand.

Despite all this extra work, the report concludes that the arguments challenging the proposal have not changed since the 2011 report, and the Committee remains supportive of the project and stands by its 'conclusion that HS2 is needed to provide a long-term increase in the capacity of the railway and that alternative proposals to increase capacity are not sufficient to accommodate long-term forecast demand'.

The benefits and costs of the project

The report suggests that the DfT should clearly communicate that the estimated cost of HS2 is £28 billion, and not £50 billion as often reported. The Committee notes that the confusion is due to the "misguided" inclusion of a £14 billion contingency. The report also argues that recent increases in cost have largely been due to decisions to undertake more tunnelling and other mitigation works.

The report makes note of HS2 Ltd's new chairman, Sir David Higgins's, intention to look at the case for building the line north to south concurrently with building south to north. The Committee looks on this favourably as it believes that the case for doing so has strengthened since the 2011 report. It also recommends that Higgins report to Ministers by the end of 2014 on the options for speeding up HS2 so that trains run north of Birmingham on high speed routes well before 2032/33.

As regards benefits, the report recommends that Government review the appropriateness of applying its standard appraisal methodology to large projects with national significance. It finds that the current methodology is overly focused on assessing the benefit to individual travellers rather than to wider society. The Committee had looked at KPMG's report and found it lacking. It suggests that further research be commissioned particularly to quantify the wider economic benefits of the project.

The Committee considers KPMG's finding that some parts of the UK could lose out as a result of HS2, particularly those not served by HS2, but concludes that 'a major transport project like HS2 will inevitably benefit some parts of the country more than others.' It finds that benefits should be spread as widely as possible and concludes that this could be achieved by 'prioritising rail projects which enable trains from a wider range of areas than is currently envisaged gaining access to the high speed network...; building additional links between the conventional and high speed networks; and bringing forward projects to speed up journey times on the conventional network, perhaps using the HS2 brand'. The Committee suggests that 'DfT, HS2 Ltd and Network Rail work together on identifying potential "High Speed Britain" projects by the end of 2014, for inclusion in the post-2020 Control Period 6 planning round, aimed at ensuring that the benefits of HS2 are felt across the country'.

Whilst the report notes that the Committee's support for HS2 is not unqualified (pointing, rather unconvincingly, to concerns as to how Heathrow will be incorporated into the plans for phase 1 and what impact the inclusion of Heathrow will have on the budget), it is clear that it is still overwhelmingly supportive of the Government's proposals. Its recommendations focus mainly on identifying further ways to buoy up the proposal, not only by correcting the information disseminated on the cost of the project, but also by commissioning further research in order to bolster the Government's case that HS2 will have a wider societal benefit. The report concludes by noting that the Committee is 'convinced that that it is essential for the UK for HS2 to go ahead, and to do so as a project which has the backing of all three major political parties'. So, while the report is unlikely to change many views about HS2, it does raise an interesting question: what happens if one of the major parties decides not to back it?

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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