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BIRMINGHAM, UNITED KINGDOM – AUGUST 28: An aerial view from a drone shows the site of the Birmingham High Speed Rail 2 station construction site at Curzon Street on August 28, 2020 in Birmingham, United Kingdom. Activists are walking to the headquarters of HS2 in a ‘funeral march’ where they take part in a protest ‘die in’. Activists are calling on the UK government to scrap the high speed rail project and instead invest in sustainable projects. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
The government paying for HS2 thinks it can’t be built as planned

The government paying for HS2 thinks it can’t be built as planned

BIRMINGHAM, UNITED KINGDOM – AUGUST 28: An aerial view from a drone shows the site of the Birmingham High Speed Rail 2 station construction site at Curzon Street on August 28, 2020 in Birmingham, United Kingdom. Activists are walking to the headquarters of HS2 in a ‘funeral march’ where they take part in a protest ‘die in’. Activists are calling on the UK government to scrap the high speed rail project and instead invest in sustainable projects. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Long stories short

  • Two US Navy sailors were arrested for sharing military secrets with China.  
  • Niger’s junta cancelled five military agreements with France as Biden called for the release of President Bazoum.
  • Alberta cancelled its bid to host the 2030 Commonwealth Games because of costs. 

Mission “unachievable”

Britain’s HS2 plan to link London and the North with ultra-fast trains is in budgetary terms by far the biggest construction project in Europe. Its projected cost has doubled to more than £70 billion. 26,000 workers are busy at 350 sites. One of them covers an area of central Birmingham the size of London’s Hyde Park.

So what? By one official assessment the whole thing is doomed. The Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), which reports to the Cabinet Office, says HS2 “appears to be unachievable”.

In addition…

  • Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee says the government “still does not know what it is trying to achieve” at London’s Euston station, the new line’s southern terminus.
  • The National Audit Office says efforts to fix the Euston problem “have not succeeded”.
  • Work there has been halted for two years to save money, but doing nothing will cost taxpayers at least £137 million. 
  • Last month HS2’s CEO resigned.

Code Red. The IPA’s assessment, first reported by the Sunday Telegraph, offers little detail but assigns a red flag to the project’s first two phases, which were meant to carry 225mph trains from Euston to Birmingham and Birmingham to Crewe by 2026 but now have a “target” completion date of 2029-33. The red flag means both phases face serious problems of definition, schedule, budget and delivery which “at this stage do not appear to be manageable or resolvable”.

Red light? Not quite. £20 billion has already been spent on HS2. Hundreds of buildings have been pulled down to make way for it at a cost of £1.5 billion in one slice of North London alone, and the Department for Transport says it’s “committed to delivering HS2 in the most cost-effective way for taxpayers,” bringing “transformational benefits for generations to come”.

Labour, which is likely to form the next UK government, says it’s also committed to HS2 even as some cost estimates nudge £100 billion.

But there’s a two-year pause on Phase 2a north of Birmingham as well as at Euston, and the DfT admits it’s “working with its supply chain to understand the wider cost and schedule implications”. Translation: inflation and interest rate rises have thrown us for a loop and there’s no more money.

Inaction station. The Euston terminus was originally meant to have 11 platforms beneath residential and retail space intended to offset its cost. Engineers have now been told to reimagine it with seven platforms and no “oversite” development. The current estimated opening date is 2041. Greg Smith, Tory MP for Buckingham, notes that if you have to change trains in the suburbs instead of going fast all the way to Euston, as currently envisaged until at least 2041, any time gained speeding south from Birmingham is lost battling into central London.

Zoom out. Why the crippling but bleakly inevitable delays and overruns? Chiefly because of planning hurdles and land costs, two areas in which the UK has few rivals. 

  • Urban rail in Britain costs twice as much per kilometre as in Germany.
  • HS2 is costing six times as much per kilometre as the European average for high-speed rail.
  • The planning process alone for the Lower Thames Crossing, meant to relieve congestion on the Dartford Crossing bridge, has cost more than Norway spent on its record-breaking 24-kilometre Laerdal tunnel. 

Nice work. The £20 billion so far spent on HS2 has accrued mainly to contractors including Balfour Beatty, Skanska, Costain and Bachy Soletanche, but also to homeowners compulsorily bought out, and to Mark Thurston, the CEO who quit last month. On £617,000 a year, he was the UK’s best-paid civil servant. 


Photograph Getty Images


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