The Lib Dems must abandon their support for HS2 for the sake of our economy and environment

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Today’s report from the National Audit Office contains no surprises. But it is still devastating for High Speed 2. The complexity of the project was underestimated. Costs are ballooning. Value for money is deflating. The political uncertainty surrounding the project, especially the northern sections, will load in more costs. It is “impossible to estimate with certainty” how much HS2 will eventually cost, the auditors conclude. But it will be north of £100bn. That dwarfs into insignificance the cost of a third runway at Heathrow.

The drain on public finances is not the main problem. HS2 is environmentally destructive. Far from being green, it will destroy centuries old biodiverse landscapes. It will take a century for the scheme to pay back the carbon and environmental costs of construction.

HS2 is a London-centric vanity project. The Lib Dem leadership should withdraw support for HS2 and declare it dead in a ditch.

On the morning that the country was suffering a bad head after the general election, HS2 published an updated environmental policy. Gone is the commitment “seek environmental enhancements and benefits” or reinstate agricultural land. The pledge to “protect water resources” was quietly dropped.

The chief executive of HS2 Ltd has admitted that it will be a century before the carbon costs of construction have been repaid to the environment (£). HS2 is so badly thought out that the company still doesn’t know how to get enough water to tunnel though the Chilterns AONB. There are justified fears that construction work will shrink aquifers and dry up chalk streams, damaging their rare ecosystems.
The Woodland Trust said HS2 will destroy or irreparably damage five internationally protected wildlife sites, 693 local wildlife sites, 108 ancient woodlands and 33 sites of special scientific interest.

All that HS2 can offer in compensation is tens of thousands of saplings that won’t be capable of supporting a biodiverse environment for decades. It even lets those trees die because it is cheaper to replace them than nurture nature.

The environmental case HS2 doesn’t stack up. The economic case doesn’t stack up either.

We need economic heartlands that work for their region. Powerhouses that work without relying on decisions by Whitehall mandarins and constant travel to and from London.

That requires a change in thinking. It means moving away from mega-infrastructure radiating from the capital towards a dipole of the south and the north. Bring Scotland into the equation and make it a tripole. Add South Wales and Belfast. These powerhouses will need connections between them. But they don’t need high speed travel in and out of London. Birmingham and the Black Country are on the up. The region needs to work with London, not depend on getting to it at high speed.

But no politician ever got a knighthood or elevation to the Lords for tweaking, adjusting or improving a system to make it more efficient. No engineer ever made national headlines or got an award for making things work better in a way that no one notices. Our media, political and professional culture is for tub-thumping successes (and failures). We demand real big toys for real big boys and girls.

We must abandon this swaggering approach to infrastructure projects. We need a sensible, incremental approach to upgrading our existing rail networks. Reopening lines. New routes and links. Longer trains with longer platforms. Classy rail stations. Electrified lines. Low carbon trains running on batteries and hydrogen. Bus linking with rail stations at the right times. That won’t happen overnight. It will be costly. But it will be better value for our environment and economy than HS2. It will push technological innovation as engineers and scientists grapple with the challenges of bringing a post-Beeching network into the 21st century.

The Lib Dems have rightly ruled out at third runway at Heathrow. But our support for HS2 remains a London-centric policy. It conflicts with our values on a fairer Britain and protecting the environment.

Our party is saying the regions outside the South East cannot survive without London. But those of us that live outside the South East know we can. We know we must. And that is why our party must abandon the financially wanton and environmentally destructive vanity project we know as High Speed 2.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at

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  • James Belchamber 24th Jan '20 - 12:18pm

    HS2 is the most incremental way we can build high-speed rail across the UK – it goes between two major cities, with plans to move through the rest of them. The terminus is walking distance from Eurostar, meaning that with the right incentives we can see an end in sight for short-haul flights in Western Europe.

    The claim by StopHS2 is based purely on carbon costs over and above current rail infrastructure, but HS2 will take cars off the roads and planes out of the sky. The spin is patently obvious and you should be honest about it.

  • william francis 24th Jan '20 - 12:18pm

    Doesn’t HS2 connect more cities than London and Birmingham? Part two includes Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool.

    In any case, your alternative is essentially an integrated transport policy, which is in and of itself a political grave.

  • You didn’t think our fight was over, did you?

  • Here here to abandoning HS2. We in the north need a service from Hull to Liverpool running at a reasonable speed , not a quicker way to get to London, with bus services for the ‘ last mile ‘

  • HS2 is a capacity reliever first and foremost.

    We’re on the West Coast Mainline – even after spending years and ££ upgrading the line, it’s still cattle class / sardines every time you travel anywhere near peak. We can’t wait for HS2!

    Some of the financial criticisms are justified – but the capacity is sorely needed. And I’m sceptical of those saying we should work on other lines (where? won’t there be the same local or environmental issues?) upgrade existing lines (how exactly? where? how much? how much disruption?)

    I hope the Lib Dems can be better than the national NIMBY party. We should be proud to be the party of rail.

  • Paul Barker 24th Jan '20 - 1:46pm

    I question whether such a biased, one-sided piece should have been published on LDV. As the comments show, there are plenty of people who have some sense of the complexity of the debate around HS2. Turning it into a North vs South argument is nonsensical & very unhelpful.
    The real problem is a Political Class who just have no idea of what things are likely to cost & thus believe ridiculous Under-estimates. The classic case was when the cost of the Scottish Parliament was announced as £40 Million. At the time I assumed that was a simple mistake & it was meant to be £400 Million but No, the £40 Million claim was repeated. The eventual cost was £400 Million.

  • I’ll defer to an expert – Gareth Dennis:

    Why it is important for better regional transport:

    Economic, & environmental case for HS2 here:

  • The Beeching cuts (yet another Tory) of the 60’s devastated the rail system . It turns out that he had ‘vested interests ‘ in motorway construction. Today past Tory decisions lead to our position today of poor infrastructure, poor rail communication. HS2 could stop at Birmingham and to LEEDS NEWCASTLE EDINBURGH electrify and bring up to date the existing rail system. Equally Liverpool to HULL should be connected. If ‘A New Dawn’ for the country is to materialise ,no matter what it costs.Future Govnts must commit to THE FUTURE.

    Chris Love-yes Banks and others , should be brought to task/justice for the mess that he and others have brought onto the country.

  • Dr. Beeching has a lot to answer for…

    ‘Great Central Main Line’:

    The GCML was the last main line railway to be built in Britain during the Victorian period. Built by the railway entrepreneur Edward Watkin with the aim to run a fast north-south line, it was designed to a specification which permitted trains to run at higher speeds; Watkin believed that it would be possible to run direct rail services between Britain and France and had presided over an unsuccessful project for a tunnel under the English Channel in the 1880s. The GCML operated as a fast trunk route from the North and the East Midlands to London. Initially not a financial success, it recovered under the leadership of Sam Fay. Although initially planned for long-distance passenger services, in practice the line’s most important function became to carry goods traffic, notably coal.

    In the 1960s, the line was considered by Dr Beeching as an unnecessary duplication of other lines that served the same places, especially the Midland Main Line and to a lesser extent the West Coast Main Line. Most of the route was closed between 1966 and 1969 under the Beeching axe.

  • @ n. Hunter I agree the Beeching Report was a disaster. However, Beeching didn’t have interests in motorway construction. He was an extremely able scientist who worked for I.C.I. . Ernest Marples, Harold Macmillan’s Minister of Transport appointed Beeching. We now know Marples had interests in motorway construction and fled to Monaco towards the end of his life to avoid prosecution for tax fraud.

    Beeching was got rid of by Harold Wilson’s Labour Government.

  • The govn approves a project that is supposed to cost X, a few years later it is going to cost 5X+++, so who is going to be prosecuted for fraud and sacked for incompetence?

    The other problem is that govn are now keen to keep infrastructure off the loan/spending account, that implies that there has to be a return on it and guess who is going to pay for it – yep, the poor old user who is already paying two to three times over a reasonable cost. Not much point have super fast train service if it is too expensive to use.

    I would limit ticket prices to the opportunity cost of using a car, based on 60mpg, so about 10p per mile and then force the rail companies to work backwards from the income that generates to reform themselves into a much more efficient entity.

    I suppose, back to the nasty old real world, you could fund HS2 by yet another tax on fuel so that the cost could be written off and not included in ticket prices.

  • Simon Horner 24th Jan '20 - 3:49pm

    It has become clear in retrospect that many of the railway closures of the 1960s, and the failure to preserve the trackbeds for possible reinstatement in the future, were among the worst economic decisions made by post-war governments. If the Great Central Main line, and other routes, had been protected from development, we might not even be having an HS2 discussion as line reopenings would be much more cost-effective.

    But you have to admire the Tories and Labour for managing to avoid the blame. We always talk about “the Beeching cuts”, reserving our opprobrium for the person who wrote the report rather than those with the actual power, who implemented it.

    Beeching was an ICI executive appointed by Ernest Marples, the Tory transport minister, for his alleged “expertise”. Marples at the time of his own appointment, was the majority shareholder in a major construction company specialising in road building! In 1975, it was revealed that he had engaged in large-scale tax evasion, and he fled to Monaco to escape the Inland Revenue.

    The Labour Party went into the 1964 election promising not to implement any more railway cuts. Between 1965 and 1970, they went on to close almost 2600 miles of track!

  • Jenny Barnes 24th Jan '20 - 3:51pm

    You can pretty much guarantee that it will go ahead. The Tories always get it wrong. 100 billion here, 100 billion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money. It’s a stupid project, always was. Reinstate the the GCML for capacity – that’s if you really need more capacity.

  • richard underhill 24th Jan '20 - 4:16pm

    London to Birmingham is only about 100-110 miles, not much more than a local railway. It does not to be as straight as a Roman road, wiggle a bit.
    Further extensions beyond Leeds and Manchester should be considered, to at least Glasgow, Edinburgh, perhaps Aberdeen.
    It also needs a rail-link from Heathrow to Gatwick. The M25 is congested. the helicopter link was abandoned.

  • David Becket 24th Jan '20 - 4:22pm

    I would agree that the case for the current HS2 is flawed. A major issue is the speed, which requires heavy duty track and must go straight, no matter what that obliterates.
    Dropping the speed to reasonable levels will provide a cheaper more environmental sustainable solution. For business users speed is not the most important consideration, they work on the train and if you add an hours journey prior to and after the train journey then an hour saving is not such a great deal.

    Capacity is a major issue, if speeds are lower could the Great Central be used to Rugby?

    More capacity is urgently required, particularly in the Birmingham area and cross country in the midlands and north.

    “The HS2 terminus is with walking distance of Eurostar”. Try doing it with heavy suitcases. More appropriate for the North Midlands and North West would be an upgrade of the Crewe Derby line and electrification of the Midland Main Line. This gives a service straight into the Eurostar terminus. The West Midlands could be covered by an upgrade of the line from Birmingham to Leicester. Possibly the expansion at Euston should have taken place at St Pancras

    These, and other issues must be part of a national rail strategy, which should include a risk assessment for HS2. An integrated transport policy, which we have never achieved, should not be a political grave if it produces the right answers.
    These, and other issues must be part of a national rail strategy, which should include a risk assessment for HS2. An integrated transport policy, which we have never achieved, should not be a political grave if it produces the right answers.

    What we should be doing is to put HS2 on hold whilst a rail strategy for the whole country is developed.

    We need six months on hold whilst we sort this out, it should have been sorted years ago.

  • Those people calling for an upgrade of the existing network clearly have no idea of the costs involved.

    Longer trains need the lines to be upgraded in many areas. Birmingham to Leicester cannot be upgraded without a massive investment of millions. A minor upgrade on the line at Water Orton a few years ago cost a six figure sum.

    Electrification of the midland mainline from Bedford to Kettering has taken 30 years since it was first envisaged!! I know I was at some of the initial meetings and it still isn’t fully completed.

    People need to get real about the costs and time it would take to even make relative minor upgrades to our existing network.

    Campaign against HS2 if you like but don’t pretend that fiddling around at the edges of our current system is the answer.

  • Every time I see the eye watering figure £100 bn I can’t help wonderng if direct investment in northern communities, in jobs, schools and social services wouldn’t be more appropriate ?

  • The alternative High Speed UK proposals, which utilise part of the old GCML route, may offer better value for money…

    ‘High Speed UK – Connecting the Nation’:

    HSUK has been developed by professional railway engineers to offer the people of the UK a real choice to the failing HS2 proposals.

  • Jeremy Cunnington 24th Jan '20 - 5:18pm

    The fundamental reason for building HS2 is the lack of line capacity on that stretch of railway. As the article says by building this line it will free up a lot of extra capacity on the current west coast line to allow more local commuter services, thus improving local services and rail freight. If we are to get to net 0 carbon emissions we need more railways (and local bus services too).

    The other thing to consider is that when the cost benefit analysis is the ridiculous short time frame that the measurement to make sense – 15 years – as we are still using railways that we built 150+ years ago which are still providing economic benefits.

    As new railway capacity is needed, and the longevity of such infrastructure one might as well build it to the best spec possible. That’s not to say that the project hasn’t been badly mis-sold or managed. It has, but do we remember the incompetences and mass bankruptcies of rail companies and indivuals in the C19 rail boom when using that infrastructure?

    It also doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be improving east-west transport connections across the whole country, not just in the north but also into the south-west and Wales, both deprived regions. We should be doing both.

    Public transport infrastructure is the best way to decarbonise our economy and that means investing in large projects, like this mid sized projects like the Oxford Cambridge rail link or smaller scale greatly boosting our local bus services (using electric buses). If we don’t all the flower and fauna the author talks about will be destroyed through global warming.

  • Land. Value. Tax.

    Use it to incentivise people to live and locate their businesses where they are most needed (low value areas) and minimise the need for inter-city travel on such a regular basis that you permanently need to be adding capacity. And even then, if you do need to add capacity, taxing land values instead of incomes and investment will make it easier to recoup the costs of that connectivity from the people (land occupiers) who most benefit from it, and reduce the tax bills of those whose communities may be harmed by it.

  • Richard O'Neill 24th Jan '20 - 9:36pm

    It isn’t a London project at all. The whole concept is to connect the Midlands and (eventually) the North to the international hub that is London.

    It is low down the list of projects that would benefit Londoners, probably topped by Crossrail 2.

  • Laurence Cox 24th Jan '20 - 10:15pm

    Bravo to Andy Boddington for proposing culling of one of the Party’s sacred cows. HS2 is the wrong high-speed line in the wrong place. You only have to look back at the history of the WCML to appreciate that any high-speed line that follows roughly the WCML route will have problems because, particularly north of Birmingham, it bends around all over the place. This was why British Rail in the 1970s and early 1980s developed the Advanced Passenger Train which, by tilting the carriages, enabled them to take the bends at higher speeds (up to 155 mph). Tilting-train technology still is used today under the Pendolino brand.

    In contrast, the much straighter ECML and Great Western lines were able to use the Inter-City 125 Trains which were in practice almost as fast (125 mph service speed/148 mph top speed) as the APT and did not need the tilting feature. Indeed the trains built for HS2 will be slower than existing trains once they come off the newly built track and on to the existing WCML because they cannot tilt.

    Any government with sense would have looked at high-speed rail travel in the UK holistically. A HS2 line that did not connect with HS1 should have been rejected outright. There are only two sensible options as I have stated before:

    1) Run HS2 up the eastern side of the Pennines with stops at Nottingham, Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh. This is the best option and links most easily with HS1 and also with the proposed east-west Hull-Leeds-Manchester-Liverpool (HS3) line.

    2) If you must go to Birmingham, then branch off HS1 just north of Ashford with stops at Gatwick, Heathrow and Old Oak Common (the trains are double-ended, so one can both enter and leave Old Oak Common from the west), before Birmingham International where passengers can change for Birmingham and the north-west. Creating a new station at Curzon Street that doesn’t link to other railway stations in Birmingham such as New Street or Snow Hill is making the same mistake as the original railway bulders made when they all had their own London terminii.


  • Laurence Cox 24th Jan '20 - 10:16pm

    … continued

    Even the HSUK proposals do not deal adequately with the Euston-St Pancras issue as the HS2-HS1 link through north London was rejected early on due to cost. If HS2 had started at Old Oak Common it would at least have saved a great deal of money spent buying up and demolishing property around Euston, but this only makes good sense if combined with joining it to HS1 via Heathrow and Gatwick, providing in addition a high-speed rail link between London’s two main airports (see HS4Air for example).

    The other idiocy of HS2 was to design the track for 400 kph (250 mph) trains, even though the time gain from the higher speed over the existing 320 kph (200 mph) trains is negligible; the power requirement is much higher (aerodynamic drag scales as the square of the speed) and a much straighter line is needed to keep lateral acceleration down (for a bend radius of r and a speed of v, the lateral acceleration is v^2/r).

  • Jenny Barnes 25th Jan '20 - 7:35am

    Aerodynamic drag scales as the square of the speed but the power required to overcome it scales as its cube. So to go 50% faster requires roughly 4 times the power – and more than doubles fuel consumption.

  • I sometimes use the service from Liverpool to London. Twice last year I was delayed by about an hour because of track problems. Each time I was changing to Eurostar. I remember when Channel tunnel was being built we were promised trains from Manchester to Paris and Liverpool to Brussels. The trains were bought in fact, but they never ran. In my opinion this is because of the fact that we have a strange approach to the issue of security. This is illustrated by the fact that the new London to Amsterdam service effectively runs in one direction only.
    This needs to be faced up to. I am very much in favour of Liverpool to Brussels trains, but if this is done, with added trains from all regions through to the rest of Europe we will need an extra channel rail tunnel.
    It is really time we faced the realities of interconnectivity.
    The first criterion for new projects should be whether the planet can support them. Another should be one of fairness.

  • richard underhill 24th Jan ’20 – 4:16pm……………..London to Birmingham is only about 100-110 miles, not much more than a local railway…………

    There is only one mistake in your sentence…HS2 is not ‘London to Birmingham’ it is ‘Birmingham to London’ and so is just another commuter ‘local line’ to expand the already ‘centric’ mentality of the capital.

    As for future expansion (north????) I wonder why those with ‘local access to London would bother heading to all points north.

  • Jack Graham 25th Jan '20 - 4:07pm

    HS2 will be a London to Birmingham commuter line and that is it.

    Anybody with two functioning brain cells can work out that it will never see the light of day any further north once the true cost of HS2 embarrasses everybody involved. Starved of investment to pay for HS2, we will probably still be chugging across the Pennines at 50 mph in 30 years time.

  • Oh dear, more of this sort of nimby talk. I despair, the project should have been completed in the 80’s and 90s but gets put off because of costs, which in the end is self defeating and gets us nowhere. Give it our support it is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the North, Midlands and the country.

  • Ian Shires 25th Jan ’20 – 1:05pm…theakes 25th Jan ’20 – 4:15pm….

    Given that there isn’t a forest of money trees what do you consider the best use for a £100 billion harvest; HS2 or 200,000 council/affordable homes?

  • David Evershed 25th Jan '20 - 6:49pm

    A billion here, a billion there, and soon you are talking real money.

    If we abandon needing a financial business case to be made for the investment of public funds we abandon sanity. Governments must take proper care when spending the people’s money.

    The increasing estimates of the cost of HS2 and the reducing estimates of the benefits mean there is no busines case for HS2 – particularly not for one costing north of £100bn.

  • Peter Martin 25th Jan '20 - 7:48pm

    @ expats

    If you built 200,000 homes for £100 billion then, by my arithmetic, they’d cost £500k each which is probably not that affordable for most people. But if you could build a million for £100k each, or £100 billion in total, then they would be.

    Cost to the taxpayer? Not £100 billion. Presumably they wouldn’t just be given away! Maybe there would even be a net return on investment? Government spending doesn’t always have to always be a cost. Possibly the return on building a railway would be comparable – but I doubt it.

  • @ David Evershed “The increasing estimates of the cost of HS2 and the reducing estimates of the benefits mean there is no busines case for HS2 – particularly not for one costing north of £100bn”.

    So what do you make of the Lib Dem Lords supporting HS2 thern, David ?

    It’s on the BBC Iplayer Parliament Channel with the lead speech from Baoness Jenny Randerson.

  • Innocent Bystander 25th Jan '20 - 9:51pm

    I didn’t understand. What would the LibDem Lords support have to do with the business case? That’s arithmetic not politics and it’s someone else’s money anyway so they could support whatever they fancy and the voters can’t hold them to account, can they?

  • As someone who has had to stand on trains from the Midlands to London I agree more capacity is needed. But, HS2 in its present form has always been nothing more than a vanity project to fluff the egos of London politicians – the UK gets a 362 km/h (225 mph) track to keep up with the rest of Europe. Once you arrive in Birmingham you are dumped at a location remote from the rest of our public transport network. Following the HS1 spec would have been cheaper, caused less damage and left money to create the connections needed. Points all made by WM MEP Phil Bennion. Example:

  • Christopher Haigh 26th Jan '20 - 9:59am

    Cities have coped better than towns in the era of globalisation. It’s more difficult for smaller Victorian towns owing theit existence to a particular industry to adapt
    It will be interesting to see if under Brexit we get increased reliance on imports and polarisation of wealth between cities and towns (in which case we need HS2) or if industry returns to our towns (in which case we don’t need it )

  • Christopher – Sadly, the one thing HS2 will not do is help small towns. One of the side proposals of HS2 is that fast trains from Glasgow to Euston will not stop anywhere in Cumbria. At present the vast majority stop at Carlisle in the North and Oxenholme (Kendal) in the South and some stop at Penrith (in the middle).

    You can always make train journeys faster if you cut out intermediate stops – as any fule knows.

  • “Sadly, the one thing HS2 will not do is help small towns. ”

    It will though.

    The big thing HS2 brings is extra capacity and will allow substantially more non HS commuter services to be run to connect up those towns. At the moment that can’t happen because the capacity is not there (and high(er) speed services take up more capacity and make it harder to run slower, stopping everywhere, services). There is also a capactity problem at some stations – one issue in West Yorks is that services are near capacity in terms of how many trains you can get in, out and through Leeds station.

    The link Ian posted above has more info on that for the West Midlands.

    One problem is that this was sold as the main benefit being reduced Manchester/Leeds/London travel times which is really quite a marginal benefit.

    You can make a point about whether this is the best and most cost effective way to increase capacity but that is a different point. (one main argument is if you are going to build a new main express line the additional cost to make it HS isn’t that great)

  • Andrew Tampion 27th Jan '20 - 7:43am

    HS2 has always seemed to me to be a Londoner’s solution to thec rest of the countries transport problems and if built would benefit London most. Local rail services would be far more beneficial.
    Consider Leicestershire where I live. There is no direct train service between Leicester and Coventry because the points that connected the Leicester and Coventry branches at Nuneaton were removed to allow non stopping trains between London and the Northwest to run faster through the station as a result it takes ca minimum of 50 minutes to travel 30 miles by train between these two cities and frequently up to 90 minutes. Or Leicester to Burton On Trent where it takes 59 minutes by train to travel 40 miles with a change at Derby when there is a perfectly servicable but freight only direct line which could be reopened to passengers at reasonable cost and provide connections to intermediate towns currently without a railway station and which also runs past a Park and Ride carpark which could also have a station.
    I am sure other contributors from other parts of the country could contribute other and possibly even better projects far more beneficial to their communities than HS2

  • The major flaw in HS2 is that north of Birmingham there are many towns and large urban areas that will not be served by it. We need more capacity and more fast trains, but not as fast as this continental model that requires so few stops. It means places like Stoke on Trent (North Staffs population well over 300K) will get a poorer service; this was confirmed by a KPMG investigation several years ago. HS2 does not directly serve enough people and will cause overcrowding around the stations it will serve. London Euston and Manchester Picadilly are already crowded. The current service to Birmingham and the population distribution justifies HS line London to Birmingham, but that’s it. As David Becket says, there are plenty of routes and large towns north of that which require improved services.

  • John Barrett 27th Jan '20 - 12:35pm

    A much smaller example of costs rising and the project being reduced in size was when Edinburgh decided to build a tram network at a cost of around £300m.

    As costs rose, the network was reduced until it was completed at a cost of over £750m with the “network” reduced to becoming one single 9 mile line from the airport to the city centre, serving relatively few people.

    It looks like something similar could happen to HS2 as costs spiral, with a shorter final line, serving very few people in the south, while the same investment could have provided more improvements to northern road and rail networks where needed and made a greater impact.

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