Will HS2 survive the spending review?

Liz Truss © Getty images
Truss is hunting white elephants

The proposed HS2 high-speed rail line is “hanging by a thread”, says Simon Jenkins in The Guardian. Treasury secretary Liz Truss has reportedly made it a candidate for autumn’s public spending review, declaring her determination to “junk the white elephants”.

The estimated costs of HS2 have risen from £56bn to more than £100bn. So far, £4bn has been spent on “preparatory work” including £600m on a “consultancy gravy train”. Cancellation would not only release land for development, it would also enable Truss to “press go on HS3”, the alternative Northern Powerhouse rail project, producing “instant ecstasy” among leaders of northern city councils.

Is that so, says Michael Savage in The Observer. Henri Murison of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, a think tank, said that ditching HS2 would “send a very negative message” and could leave the Tories “in opposition for decades”. And scrapping it is “far from straightforward”: more than 900 properties on the proposed route have already been bought at a cost of £600m. A more likely outcome is that the section north of Birmingham, due to open in 2026, will be cancelled.

If that happens, it will make a “mockery of the notion that it will help bridge the north-south divide”, says Liam Halligan in The Daily Telegraph. Moreover, trains on the London to Birmingham route are only 70% full at peak times. Back in 2010, the “main rationale” for HS2 was speed, but Wi-Fi on trains weakens the case for shaving an hour or so off journey times.

The priority should be channelling “serious cash” into local commuter services, wherever they are. “Since 2008, UK rail fares have risen twice as fast as earnings, yet overcrowding is at record levels,“ cancellations are spiralling and passengers’ dissatisfaction is “at a ten-year-high.” HS2 is a costly “vanity project” and should be axed.