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On Monday the Public Accounts Committee of MPs took oral evidence on the pause of HS2 construction at Euston station. Anyone expecting any real answers as to how we got to this sorry state will have been sadly disappointed at the session as it was more the ‘dunno’ show than generating any real insights. It was also curious for what was not said or discussed as much as what was.

For some reason the Committee decided to focus exclusively on Euston station itself and ignore another vital piece of that jigsaw. The Euston tunnels, which are essentially separate to the station but they’ve been paused too – as has construction of phase 2a from Handsacre Junction North of Birmingham as far as Crewe.

Now, Euston station is undoubtedly a mess but that’s no reason to postpone building the Euston approach tunnels. Plus, the tunnels are ‘critical path’ work. Without the TBMs for the Euston tunnels being launched from the Old Oak Common station box you can kiss goodbye to opening the HS2 station at Old Oak that’s now being talked about as a ‘temporary terminus’ for HS2 in London. Plus, if you don’t build the tunnels you won’t be running any HS2 trains into Euston – whatever final design’s cooked up!

The PAC session was billed as asking “how the risks to value for money are being managed” yet the session was all about the money and not about the value. We got bogged down in the minutiae of how much it would cost to secure the Euston site (even talking about hoardings) but nothing about the REAL value of money questions – such as how much the delays to building Euston would affect railway capacity and passenger usage of the truncated HS2 line to Old Oak Common. Nor was anything asked about the environmental costs of delaying HS2 – which are also financial – or the economic impact on ‘levelling up’.

Instead, what we heard from Dame Bernadette Kelly (Perm Sec at DfT), Alan Over (DG of High Speed Rail Group and SRO for HS2 at DfT) and Mark Thurston (Chief Exec at HS2 Ltd) was a sorry tale of government delay and dither and what happens when you let a Committee design something. Think of the problems with the Great Western Main Line electrification where everyone sticks their ‘pennorth’ into the specification so the costs keep rising.

Reading between the lines of what was being said at the Committee, this is what happened at Euston. Costs kept rising as Government changed its mind on the size of the oversite development (which impacted on the rail design), a new ‘partnership’ was established which added other priorities and considerations and the whole thing grew so that the agreed 2019 budget hopelessly was unrealistic when the wish-list was presented to the construction team who were meant to wrap it all up into a final, costed design that they could build.

I suppose you could describe it like this. You want your dream kitchen so you and all your family set an unrealistic budget, then you pore over an out of date catalogue whilst accepting suggestions from your neighbors and relatives on what’s needed. Then you call the builder. The builder weighs everything up, itemises it, sucks his teeth and tells you exactly how much that little lot will cost in the real world today.

Now, I have sympathy with the idea that Euston had to be paused. It’s clear the existing wish list (I won’t grace it with the name of ‘plan’) was far too expensive and that the dither and delays had added to the costs. Remember, Euston was originally expected to open at the end of 2026 with the rest of phase – despite what Kelly and Merriman have previously claimed, which I dealt with here. Plus, in the original plan we were going to get more (11 platforms) for less money. As we’re now 1/3 of the way through 2023 and there’s still no viable plan and in the intervening time we’ve seen rampant inflation, cost pressures due to Covid, the Ukraine war and Brexit so it’s hardly surprising costs have increased.

Some of this was touched on at the hearing, some of it wasn’t. Was was studiously ignored was the Government’s involvement in this expensive fiasco. Obviously, the witnesses were going to have to tread carefully (if you’re a civil servant criticising this Government can be very bad for your career) but not all the PAC members were Tories and could have asked awkward questions. The bizarre thing is none did. The nearest we got was Labour’s Nick Smith MP, who did ask some direct open questions and didn’t take fuzzy replies as an answer. But otherwise, it was a very poor show. Many questions were asked about ‘exactly’ how much the shutdown was going to cost and all three witnesses gave the same answer – ‘dunno’ – because no-one’s worked it out yet! The decision was only taken around 4 weeks ago and no-one’s looked at all the implications and crunched the numbers – which makes the Transport Minister Mark Harper’s initial claim that this was being done to ‘save’ money look even more ridiculous.

Mark Thurston did shed some light on what happens next. £2bn has been spent on the Euston area since the project began in what he describes as ‘no regrets’ investment (meaning its needed whatever the new station plans are). This includes all the preparatory and enabling work, all the works in the surrounding areas (like building new homes) and the work to the London Underground. A further £220 million will be spent on completing the TfL vent shaft and substation, the new construction skills centre and the station facilities block. This work will run to the autumn when the Euston station site will be secured and shut down. Ctte Chair Dame Meg Hillier questioned how long this would mean the site would be shut down as the timescale Thurston was suggesting was less than 2 years, or was it? Thurston explained that he expected the site to reopen in Spring 2025.

Alan Over did make two things clear in response to questions. One was that there’s no way the savings being asked for can be made without cutting the ‘wish list’ that’s been included in the final Euston design that the builders costed (which came in at £4.8bn) . the other was that, depending on what final ‘wish list’ is agreed by all parties, the Government may need to cough up some more money.

After 2 hours of being none the wiser on costs or timetables and with not having asked any of the really big question on value (never mind costs) the Ctte wound up. I can only hope they return to these matters having thought about the ‘big picture’ stuff and the real implications of the delays to HS2 and don’t get bogged down in the minutiae of mothballing building sites, but I won’t hold my breath…

Looking down on the Euston HS2 construction site in October 2021 at the bit no-one at the PAC talked about. The Euston tunnels…

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