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Opinion – Why HS2 may be a huge infrastructural failure

The new high-speed railway will connect Manchester, Birmingham, and London as part of government efforts to ‘level-up’ the North. But with numerous contingencies, mounting costs, and environmental damages, HS2 might be the biggest major infrastructure failure in recent memory. 

HS2 was first proposed by Labour government in 2009. A massive rail infrastructure project, it was designed to ‘level-up’ the North of England by providing better transport links throughout the country.

The construction of HS2 has been planned in two stages, which would see London connected with major Northern cities like Manchester and Birmingham. Stage 1, which involved a rail link between London and the West-Midlands, was initially slated to open in 2026.

Phase 2 was planned in two parts, with 2A connecting Birmingham to Crewe, and 2B continuing on to Manchester and Leeds.

However, multiple contingencies and ballooning costs have resulted in a swathe of delays. Phase 1 is now not expected to open until 2033. And the leg of HS2 connecting Birmingham to Leeds will now be scrapped altogether.

A further line, called the ‘Northern Powerhouse’, was also intended to join Manchester to Leeds, but this too has been abandoned due to rising costs.

Given the proposed benefits of HS2, it’s understandable that billions of pounds have been funnelled into the project. 40,000 extra jobs were expected to emerge in Leeds due to the development, causing a £54 billion economic boost in the area.

But now that both lines intended to connect Leeds to other major northern cities have been dropped, the government’s promise to ‘level-up’ the north is being thrown into question.

Many have argued that HS2 is actually a thinly-veiled attempt to boost London’s economic growth.

Analysis from the New Economics Foundation (NEF) suggests that the government has simply used the north as a guise for serving already wealthy communities with a major rail development, whilst upending under-developed areas with environmental damage and ongoing construction.

A 2019 report by NEF predicted the ceasing of a Leeds to Manchester route, and argued that similar investment as has been earmarked for HS2 could have been used for improving regional transport links across the north of England.

NEF went on to argue that 40% of the ‘passenger benefits’ calculated as part of HS2’s development (including reduced travel times, greater connections, and economic stimulation to local areas) would flow to London, with only 18% benefitting the north west, 12% the west midlands, and 10% Yorkshire and Humber.

HS2 has also drawn controversy due to its environmental impact. Environmentalists and conservationists have been against the project since its conception, due to the deforestation required to complete the rail line.

But those central to HS2’s development have argued the major infrastructure will be beneficial to the climate. According to HS2’s website, the environmental improvements would come from reducing travel time – resulting in 17x less carbon emissions than air travel, and 7x less than car journeys.

Given HS2 has now come in at a whopping £100 billion in costs – more than double its original budget of £30 billion – the project has become more known for its set-backs than its innovative potential.

With ambitions scaling down, HS2 is doing little more than proving that the government continually prioritises economic-gain in the capital (with HS2 creating greater transport links for workers coming into London) over socio-economic benefits within local communities.

With major routes in between Manchester, Birmingham, and Leeds already scrapped, and travel times throughout the north decreased by only incremental amounts, it seems that HS2 is only really making strides in the south.

The north, locals have argued, has to make do with ‘piecemeal improvements’.

As the Northern Echo stated, ‘for the North East, the railway plans are not about shaving 17 minutes off a journey to King’s Cross, they are about increasing capacity so more trains can run to more places carrying freight as well as passengers and, most importantly, to do so affordably’.

Ultimately, it seems, HS2’s supposed efforts to ‘level-up’ and unite the country have become a source of division. And the north – once again – have been left in the economic shadow of the south.


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