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As widely trailed in the media, today, the Chairman of Hs2 Ltd, Allan Cook has published his report and advice about the deliverability of Hs2. You can find the report here. Despite much of the media speculation and froth on social media, the report contains no surprises. The review has looked at what’s been happening since the project was first launched back in 2009 and updated plans in the light of events. It’s no admission of failure, merely a pragmatic response to changes in circumstances due to a whole range of issues. It’s also taken on board valuable lessons from the difficulties at Crossrail and other major projects. There’s little that’s new. For example, the question of extending the construction timetable was suggested quite some time ago by the National Audit Office.

Here’s some of the more important points from it.

“As such (HS2) is an integral part of the plans of Transport for the North, Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) and Midlands Connect, providing 50% of the new lines needed by NPR. However, the scale and the complexity of the task, as well as the transformational benefits it will deliver for the country and its regions were under-estimated in the original business case.
The original plans did not take sufficient account of the compound effect of building a high-speed line through a more densely populated country with more difficult topography than elsewhere – and doing so whilst complying with higher environmental standards.
Equally, the existing cost/benefit model, which was designed for smaller scale schemes, has proved inadequate in capturing the full transformational effect of HS2, particularly on changing land values. This transformation is already being demonstrated in Birmingham.
Therefore, the budget and target schedule for the programme have proved unrealistic, while at the same time the benefits have been understated”.

Cook goes on to say that..

“Phase One from Birmingham to London is already under way and should be completed as planned. HS2 conducts its business as a cost-conscious organisation with value for money playing a huge factor in decision-making. Though much work has been done to date to drive down costs through independent reviews and pilot studies, the cost is likely to rise from £27bn1 to a range of £36bn to £38bn; and the target delivery date of December 2026 should become a more realistic, manageable and cost effective staged opening between 2028 and 2031.
Phase 2a, from Birmingham to Crewe, is currently near the end of its legislative process in Parliament. That process should be completed and amalgamated with Phase One and delivered to the same timescale. Its cost is likely to rise from £3.5bn to a range between £3.6bn and £4.0bn”

So, phase 1 and 2a will open together. And phase 2b?

The hybrid Bill for Phase 2b running from Crewe to Manchester and Birmingham to Leeds is currently being prepared and is, therefore, the least mature of the Phases. Given its early stage and its essential role in delivering Northern Powerhouse Rail, Transport for the North and Midlands Connect, there is an opportunity to fully integrate the plans for each region and deliver them in smaller, more manageable sections as part of a rolling programme of investment in the Midlands and the North. In line with the experience of Phase One, the cost of Phase 2b is likely to rise from £28.6bn to a range of £32bn to £36bn with target delivery moving from 2033 to between 2035 and 2040″.

Moving on beyond the executive summary there’s some very interesting details in the report. What’s now proposed is the have a phase 1 ‘soft opening’ where trains will be run as a captive service, staying on Hs2 metals and not running onto Network Rail tracks.

The target date for Phase One services is set at December 2026 in the Development Agreement, with Baseline 6.1 (described on page 17 below) introducing the concept of staged opening (3 trains per hour (tph) between Old Oak Common and Birmingham Curzon Street in December 2026 and 10tph between Euston and the North West in December 2027).
The staged opening approach, with an initial captive service with no interaction with the existing rail network, follows good practice of introducing services gradually and minimising integration risks while operational experience and reliability are built up. As a captive service, this can be introduced when the systems are ready and proven (a “soft start”) and does not require a change to national timetables

One of the reasons for postponing the opening date is keeping costs down on embankment building, as the report explains.

allowing additional time for ground settlement in preference to costly ground stabilisation prior to installation of high-precision concrete slab track” (pge 15).

The report goes on to mention that one of the reasons for the extension of the opening date of phase 2b is the Parliamentary timetable.

“The opening of the full HS2 “Y” network was considered, in 2014, achievable in around 2033. As well as being a long-term forecast, this was based on Royal Assent by 2020 for a Phase Two hybrid Bill.
In Baseline 1, Royal Assent was to be in October 2022 (with Bill deposit in September 2019). And in the emerging schedule, Royal Assent is set at Dec 2023 (based on a Bill deposit in June 2020).”

Yet again, this is just a pragmatic view and reflection of events in the real world. So, what about all those crazy figures that we’ve seen thrown around by opponents of the project? Is the cost of Hs2 really estimated at £100bn now? No. It’s between £72.1bn to £78.4bn (pge 33).

There’s a lot else in the report, which needs to be read in detail, but it produces some interesting figures, although a lot of sensitive commercial detail is (of course) redacted. How important Hs2 is to the delivery of Northern Powerhouse Rail is made clear in this observation.

“Elements of the HS2 design incorporate several NPR touchpoints. NPR could use c.80km of HS2 lines into Manchester and Leeds as part of its current designs. This represents more than 50% of the total new lines needed for NPR” (pge 38).

When Hs2 was first conceived, NPR didn’t even exist, so it’s hardly surprising that phase 2b is being reconsidered in the light of what’s now happening in the North. Yes, the delays can be considered frustrating, but the important thing is to get the two projects properly integrated and get it right.

There’s also some new points, such as this, which suggests HS2 are looking at the possibility of reducing the number of platforms they need at Euston. Notice reduce, not scrap going to Euston!

“The project teams are also considering whether reducing the project’s physical footprint in certain locations is feasible, for example at Euston”. (pge 41).

There’s a lot to go at in the report, so this is just me picking out the highlights and a few snippets. What conclusions can we draw from the report? I’d suggest it gives those opposed to the project very little ammunition that they’ve not already fired at HS2. Yes, the timescale has changed. Yes, it will cost more in the light of changes and the famous Harold Macmillan quote about “events, dear boy, events”! One thing the report does is what I suggested in my comment piece in the latest copy of RAIL magazine. “If not Hs2, then what”? Because the report makes crystal clear the need for Hs2 which is something those opposed to it always try and ignore. Also, nothing has been suggested to be cut. Not Euston, nor the Leeds leg, both of which have been speculated upon at length.

The report spells out the headache for Boris Johnson. What could he cut? The answer is – nothing that makes sense.

Cut phase 1? Then you leave the West Coast Main Line with sclerosis. The project’s already ready to go so you cause a lot of pain across the construction sector and send entirely the wrong message about UK competitiveness and capability. Oh, and without pause 1 there’s no point in building phase 2 as there’s nowhere to run the trains to as the WCMLs full and Birmingham Curzon St is part of phase 1!

Scrap phase 2? Ah, but as the report points out, mode than half of NPR track is actually HS2! Reneging on very public commitments to the North would go down like a cup of cold sick! Nor would you be helping to rebalance the economy, so that’s not going to go down well either.

Cancel either of them and you can throw your international commitments to tackle climate change out of the window too!

Mind you, as I write this it seems the Tories have just lost their Parliamentary majority, so Johnson may have other things on his mind!

No doubt this report will set the tone of the Oakervee review of HS2. I expect it to be endorsed by the real players on that committee, who will be asking exactly the same question I have. I’ve no doubt Hs2’s detractors will try to make hay out of the report. It’s likely at least one well-known rail commentator will stick the word “damning” in front of the word report, but in truth it’s anything but. It’s an honest look at the difficulties and challenges of building such a major infrastructure project in the 21st century. Now let’s see what the Oakervee review comes up with…