Lords won't get the answers they want to high-speed questions

Thursday, May 16th, 2019 9:57am

There is plenty of anger within the pages of this report from the House of Lords, but crucially it stops short of asking for HS2 to be scrapped.

Yes, they want it amended. Yes, too, they think fundamental changes should be made and lessons learnt, even if those demands may well fall flat. But cancelled? No.

And they must know that their remaining demands are likely to go unanswered, for the simple reason that, four years ago, the same committee produced a pretty similar report with some very familiar suggestions - slower trains, reappraisal, changes to the route.

And they were almost totally ignored by the government. It's hard to imagine we're in for a change of heart, now.

Within the rail and construction industries, the feeling is that the argument has concluded about whether HS2 should be built at all.

Already, billions have been spent on the project - buying land, preparing it for construction, designing and commissioning. The idea that HS2 exists only as a paper project is wrong.

Visit Euston station, in the middle of London, and you'll see what I mean. Buildings have been demolished and, behind a discretely disguised door, I was welcomed on to the vast construction site where the start of HS2 is being laid out.

At the moment, it is a huge hole in the ground, buzzing with archaeologists who examine the artefacts that are being unearthed here, working alongside the diggers that are preparing the site, shielded from both sight and weather by a huge canopy that covers more than a hectare.

These artefacts are, invariably, bodies, for the site was a burial ground for 80 years from the late 18th century. Captain Matthew Flinders, the man who led the first circumnavigation of Australia, was buried here. His grave was found in January.

For the moment, the archaeologists are in charge, and nothing happens without their say-so. But their work is coming to an end. The site will shortly be cleared of the remaining coffins and bodies, and the focus will switch to building a railway.

Which is why, when you stand overlooking this activity, it's hard to imagine the Lords' report leading to a change of heart. The peers suggest that, rather than stretch to Euston, the HS2 project could instead terminate at Old Oak Common, a vast new station being built in west London.

They suggest, too, that the costs could be reduced if the top speed of trains was scaled back. Publicly, HS2 have said the report is useful; privately, it is seen as being ill-considered.

Industry insiders say Old Oak Common is not being designed as a terminus, and wouldn't be suitable. They also query why a state-of-the-art link between London and Birmingham would be doing its job if it didn't end up in the middle of the capital city.

As for the speed of the trains? "Future-proof" was the answer I got from one person involved in the project. "We aren't just building this for today's trains, but for the ones to come."

But what of that complaint, that HS2 has been built the wrong-way round, that new rail infrastructure in the North is the priority, and that London is already very well served by rail links.

Well, the last point is true. London is the hub of Britain's rail network, with nine of our ten busiest stations. But that's been the case for a long time - certainly throughout the laborious process that saw HS2 win parliamentary approval.

It's rather hard to see how things have changed since HS2 got through both Commons and Lords. And the infrastructure plans to support the Northern Powerhouse project have been designed in parallel with the second phase of HS2. Frankly, it's unlikely that they're going to be ripped up now.

The likelihood is that HS2 will be built pretty much as it's planned now. The budget is hard to predict - not least because the lesson of Crossrail highlights the dangers of over-promising early in a project - but it's easier to foresee that controversy will continue to follow HS2.

It will wreck great swathes of countryside, and it will cost a fortune. And if you don't buy into the value of high-speed rail (as some don't), it may look like a gigantic waste of money.

Plus, it's hard to imagine that at least some of the contenders to become the next Conservative leader won't threaten to cancel the whole thing, just as they might oppose Heathrow's third runway.

It's right to re-think, re-appraise and check projects are going the right way. We are becoming a more environmentally-literate nation. But will the Lords report put HS2 in peril? It's hard to imagine.

Sky News

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