Well, what a week it has been!
This time last week, when we were all looking forward to the upcoming Dispatches broadcast on Channel 4, we couldn’t have expected how things would go afterwards: three former ministers called for the cancellation of HS2 in Parliament; the chief executive of HS2 Ltd admitted he doesn’t know how much HS2 will cost, claiming they’ve “always said” they wouldn’t know what HS2 costs until the contractors are in place; and when HS2 came up on BBC Question Time just one person disagreed with the rest of the well-informed audience in saying the money would be better spent on other transport projects. And that was just Thursday!
The Dispatches broadcast came at the perfect time, and unlike missed opportunity of Panorama in December which looked at a small part of the scandal surrounding HS2, this time they looked at about as much of the scandal that is HS2 itself as you could fit into 26 minutes, helping provide a vehicle increasing scepticism and opposition to HS2 to a head. The lull in the Brexit debate even meant the Daily Mail effectively had an advert for a Channel 4 programme on its front page, but that wasn’t why the timing was right, the timing was right because finally the message was ready to be heard.
For the last six months or so, it has become increasingly evident that HS2 is in real trouble. Seemingly endless reports have come out demonstrating various elements of HS2 are behind schedule, over budget and generally in a mess. We’ve even had the former chairman of the HS2 Ltd going so far as to say that “something has to give” and “nobody knows” what it will cost, an admission from the top of the project that it cannot be delivered at the proposed specifications for the headline cost.
The rhetoric propping up HS2 has been wearing ever thinner, and the political support for it has been drying up. Indeed, with the Conservatives, it seems to be a pre-requisite for anyone wishing to succeed Theresa May to say they would cancel HS2, and with good reason. That reason for all of this is we are now at the sharp end. Whilst HS2 Ltd took eight years to spend their first £5bn, we are now at the point when a commitment to absolutely go ahead with it represents an inescapable commitment to spend more than that every year, for a region of around of twenty years.
Worse still for HS2, there is currently a government review of large projects, and in particular a new economic case for HS2 is being prepared, due out in the summer.
It seems like the response from HS2 Ltd to this will be to swallow a large slice of mission creep and reinvent the project as ‘Essential for regeneration in post-Brexit times’, and as they have done in the past, invent billions of pounds of unsubstantiable wider economic benefits, to paper over the gaping hole in the business plan which has been left by rocketing costs and plummeting specifications.
We’ve already seen the absolutely dismal first attempts from the pro-HS2 lobby to create positive spin along these lines, and move the narrative to one of HS2 being an ‘essential’ regeneration project. In January the proponents of HS2 took the regeneration rhetoric mission creep for a test drive, after Chris Grayling had publically asked the rail, consultancy and construction firms who have always been lobbying for multi-billion pound HS2, to push the boat out and lobby him a little harder, but in public this time. Part of the reason for this was Chris Grayling needed help to quash the speculation that Phase 2 would not happen, speculation that had been started by Chris Grayling!
This meant that not only did we see a representative of construction firm Mace saying how ‘essential’ HS2 is on BBC Breakfast, just a week before Mace was named preferred bidder for the £1bn Euston contract, but we were treated to the ridiculous spectacle of various arms of government lobbying government, backed up the rest of the clear vested financial interest gang. The end result of all this was the cringeworthy statement from Chris Grayling that cancelling HS2 would be ‘betraying’ the North, something that pretty much no-one else is buying.
This statement clearly set the tone for proponents of HS2, that they were gearing up to revert to the gambit of pretending the argument for and against HS2 is really some sort of “North versus South Class War”, originally advocated back in the day by Lord Bethell, aka “Baron Shit-Them-Up”. As a result, I found myself on the radio with rail journalist Ian Walmsley, who even after hearing what Dispatches Journalist Liam Halligan had to say, tried to dismiss everything that had been said with a tired nimby attack on me: “He’s from Kenilworth, and they don’t like things built in their gardens in Kenilworth”. In a similar vein, after seeming to have a full blown breakdown on Twitter when the Janurary PR push derailed, Northern Powerhouse Partnership boss Henri Murison started swearing on air on BBC Leeds, and described Halligan as “Some journalist who has never left London” . Laying it on as thick as possible, he then invented the idea that the Channel 4 programme – that’s Channel 4 who are moving to Leeds – was part of some supposedly well-known anti-North agenda that the Daily Telegraph is driving…
This particular accusation fell completely flat on its arse when it transpired that, besides demonstrating how out of control the costs of HS2 are, the entire premise of the Dispatches broadcast was that the money would be better spent on the real trains in the North people use – or don’t get to use – right now, which HS2 will be of no help to whatsoever. In a poll that Dispatches commissioned before they broadcast the realities of crush hour in the North of England, 72% of the public said they’d rather see the HS2 money spent on the rest of the network, only 12% thought HS2 will be value for money, with 7% thinking they will never benefit from HS2.
The other thing Dispatches did very well besides show there is still little support there is from the public for HS2, was highlight there is also a massive split down the middle of the rail industry over whether or not HS2 is a worth pursuing, with many experts coming down against it. The social media reaction really backed this up. With supporters of HS2 mobilised for the broadcast, and even geed up for it at a conference earlier that day, all they did was show just how shallow their pool is.
Most of the attempts to rebut Halligan were laughable, and what was genuine comedy were the cries of bias from a media establishment that regularly cut and paste HS2 Ltd press notices without any question. A great example was Rail Magazine editor Nigel Harris, who claimed we at Stop HS2 just ignore what is apparently an ’inconvenient truth’ for us, that most of the cost increases are because the treasury insisted on increased contingencies. There was what seemed like a thinly veiled threaten to sue from Harris, following the suggestion that it is the duty of journalists to actually check facts instead of just repeating spin, but oddly enough since we broke down the exact figures and demonstrated that £10bn of the £15.5bn increase in construction costs is not contingency, but an unattributable increase in the cost of HS2, we haven’t heard back from him.
Of course if I were a proponent of HS2, I wouldn’t be drawing attention to the contingency. With contractors coming back and saying construction will cost more than budgeted and the price of buying land and property on phase 1 looking far closer to £5bn than the original £1bn estimate, the contingency is being burned away well before construction has started. This is one of the reasons for the subtle change in language recently from the almost pompous “HS2 is on time and on budget” to the more subdued “The budget is £55.7bn, and it’s our job to deliver HS2 within that budget”
Possibly the worst thing that Dispatches demonstrated is how the pro HS2 part of the rail industry so easily turn on their own, almost like ancient tribes who sent out their old to die in the snow or ate their elderly relatives. Michael Byng is the man who, after decades of rail projects going over budget, came up with a standardised way of costing projects. Network Rail have adopted his model, and so far it has actually worked. That’s right, for the first time in forever a rail project has come in on budget, thanks to Michael Byng. Rail enthusiasts everywhere should be having a whip-round for his medal. But despite the fact that as far as Network Rail are concerned, he is de facto the country’s principal expert on rail project costs, because he says HS2 will blow more than their entire £55.7bn budget just on Phase 1, fanatics dismiss him as “Just one man” and someone who has supposedly “staked his career on HS2 failing”.
Stephen Glaister has been working in rail policy since 1978, and is chair of the Office of Road and Rail, the industry regulator. But that’s the thing, because he’s in charge of the independent regulator he’s not part of the vested interest gang, and worst still, as someone who used to be on a committee for HS2 Ltd, he’s even more credible on the subject.
The reason why rail enthusiasts show such venom to the likes of Byng and Glaister, along with Chris Stokes, Paul Salveson, Christian Wolmar and others, is that their standard go-to condescending dismissive way of demeaning that anyone who even questions the need for HS2, is that they simply doesn’t understand railways. When long serving experts and railwaymen question HS2 so openly and point out the self-evident flaws in the project it totally destroys that argument, and what the social media reaction proved is that there are many other rail experts who question HS2 behind the scenes.
The next level of the standard go-to ‘rail expert’ argument is that HS2 is essential and the only way to deliver capacity, because the railways are full and there is no room for any more trains on the West Coast Mainline. That argument dates from before the time when London Midland as was changed the timetable and added more trains, and of course from before the time when London Midland as was changed the timetable and added more trains again! Also in that time, Glaisters ORR said there was room to reintroduce a London-Blackpool service, though because of HS2 construction it would have to stop short of Euston, and of course the fact that we always thought that everyone who ‘knows’ about the WCML and the capacity issues ‘knows’ that Virgin artificially supress it for commercial reasons. So far are proponents of HS2 willing to stick their neck out for the capacity argument, that there is even one self proclaimed expert willing to go so far as saying that not one, not two, but three double tracked normal railways would have to be built to deliver the same capacity as HS2!
Those aren’t the only problems with the ‘capacity’ argument. First, is the very specific bit in the HS2 business plan which calls for £11.1bn worth of cuts to existing railways. With that, and just to show how bonkers people can be, one of these self-proclaimed ‘rail experts’ repeatedly says I’ve consistently lied about this fact (using an earlier figure), because the cuts planned for after HS2 is operational haven’t happened yet….
If HS2 is the ‘only way’ to deliver capacity, why do Network Rail say in-cab signalling, which has been all but forgotten but will have to happen everywhere eventually, could deliver a 40% capacity increase for the entire rail network? Finally, if capacity to be released from HS2 will be the savoir that delivers space for more commuter and more freight trains, then where is the timetable? If HS2 will free up capacity for new services, fine, show us exactly what those services will be, an actual verifiable timetable. Of course that can’t happen, because that would mean the whole thing would be open for scrutiny, and it is so much easier to make promises without any facts to back them up.
About the only bit of criticism of what Halligan reported on Dispatches that might just about stand up is the fact that the Pacers featured in the programme are due to be replaced by the end of the year, but then again, that’s in the same way that this time last year, people were saying Crossrail would have been running a couple of months by now. While Pacers are ‘due’ to be phased out by the end of 2019, which it is becoming increasingly clear they won’t, their replacement has been promised for decades and another way of putting “They aim to phase them out by the end of the year” would be “They aim to finally stop using them about a week before it actually becomes illegal to use them”.
The bottom line is there are rails services all over the country that could have featured in Dispatches, that desperately need upgrades, but aren’t getting then and HS2 not only won’t help, but by hogging the rail infrastructure budget for the best part of two decades, may well prohibit them getting the attention they need. But if the proponents of HS2 really want to turn this into a class, war, maybe the fact that after the cuts that have already happened, the LGA say half the bus routes in the country are under threat would be more pertinent. For those who are interested, the one my Mum uses here in supposedly-posh-Kenilworth was cut last month.
Besides the predictably repetitive statements from Ministers and HS2 Ltd, the nearest thing approaching a fightback in the Dispatches fallout was an article in the Financial Times, by a person some people would call “Former footballer Gary Neville”, whilst others would call him “Property developer who buys up properties in names other than his own, Gary Neville”.
So when HS2 came up on BBC Question Time from Aylesbury on Valentines Day, it wasn’t just that the audience opposition to the scheme was almost unanimous that we loved, it was that they were saying spend the money in the North, where it is needed, where it has always been needed, exactly in line with what we have been saying at Stop HS2 since 2010. And again the response on social media, this time when neither side in the debate was prepared for the reaction, showed that there just isn’t really any love for HS2.
The was no love for HS2 on the 14th in Parliament either, as able to speak freely three former cabinet ministers vocally opposed HS2, including former Labour Transport Minister John Spellar calling for the cancellation of the “Ever more expensive, budget-busting HS2.”
So now we have experts saying the cost of HS2 could easily end up over £100bn, and that’s before you add into all the off the books cost. It’s clear that behind the veneer, officials are taking these claims seriously, as “HS2 is on time and on budget” is noticeably no longer the standard response, and HS2 proponents saying they are just “aiming” to deliver HS2 for £56bn sound like they are struggling to convince themselves. After the former chair of HS2 admitted that ‘no-body knows’ what the final bill will be, the current chief executive has agreed that he doesn’t know what the cost will be either. Trying to rewrite a decade of that constant repetition of “On time and on budget”, now he claims they’ve “always said” they’d only know how much it could cost when the contractors came on board, and told Government just exactly how much they want to build their white elephant, and all that is against a backdrop of a likely reduction in the proposed specification of HS2.
With all that in mind, it makes sense that supporters of HS2 are trying to change the narrative, say it’s for regeneration and invent some obviously made up big numbers to stick in front of the word ‘jobs’. We’ve even had Ministers trying to pretend that the archaeology, demotions and taking place utilities diversions are actually construction, and that even without any final signed-off designs they are trying to make out they’ve already started building it, so it can’t be cancelled
The reality is that we are tantalisingly close to getting HS2 cancelled. We might not win, but we have never been this close.
To some we’re villains, to others we’ll be heroes, but one thing is certain, we’ll keep buggering on!