HS2 has been cancelled north of Birmingham. The prime minister, Rishi Sunak, announced this at the Conservative Party conference on 4 October, some 13 years after the plan was adopted by the Labour government to build a new high-speed railway from London to Birmingham, which then would branch into two legs – one to Manchester and one to Leeds. The initial budget for this was £15.8bn to £17.4bn. When it came to power, the Conservative-Liberal coalition government ordered a review of the plan. In light of this, the government gave the green light in January 2012 for the full Y-shaped project to go ahead. The London–Birmingham leg was planned to open in 2026 and the two northern legs from 2033.
The project was divided into two phases: Phase 1 to Birmingham and Phase 2 to Manchester and Leeds. The Phase 1 parliamentary bill became law in February 2017 and soon after that, various construction contracts were signed. After some delays, preparation for construction work began in June 2019. There was growing doubt, however, about the viability of the northern legs.
On becoming prime minister in 2019, Boris Johnson ordered an independent review of the project after estimates that the costs of the full project would be some £88bn. The review, chaired by Douglas Oakervee, was published in December 2019 (for a link, see list of reports below). It found that costs (in 2015 prices) were likely to be between £62bn and £69bn. Nevertheless, it concluded that the project should proceed: that the original rationale for HS2 still held; that there were:
no shovel-ready alternative investments in the existing network that were available: if HS2 were to be cancelled, many years of planning work would be required to identify, design and develop new proposals; that the upgrading of existing lines would also come at a high passenger cost with significant disruption; that there would be serious consequences for the supply chain, the fragile UK construction industry and confidence in UK infrastructure planning if HS2 were to be cancelled at this late stage.
In February 2020, the prime minister announced that HS2 would go ahead, including the legs to Manchester and Leeds. The Department for Transport published a document (see source line to the following table) giving the full business case for Phase 1 and the outline case for Phase 2. The document itemised the costs and benefits as estimated at the time.
Box 12.6 in Economics (eleventh edition) and Case study 8.16 on the Essentials of Economics (ninth edition) student website looks at these costs and benefits. The above table is taken from the box/case study. Net transport benefits (present value at 2015 prices) were estimated to be £74.2bn. These include benefits to passengers from shorter journey times, greater reliability, greater connectivity and less crowding, and reduced congestion on roads. They also include other benefits, such as a reduction in carbon emissions and a reduction in road accidents. Net benefits also include the wider benefits from greater connectivity between firms (resulting in increased specialism, trade and investment), greater competition and greater labour mobility. These wider benefits were estimated to be £20.5bn, giving total net benefits of £94.7bn.
Total costs to the government were estimated to be £108.9bn and revenues from fares to be £45.4bn, giving total net costs of £63.5bn. This gave a benefit/cost ratio of 1.5 (£94.7bn/£63.5bn). In the light of these findings, the government announced in September 2020 that the main work on the London to Birmingham leg would begin, despite the Public Accounts Committee’s finding that the project was badly off course and lacking in transparency.
Concern was expressed over whether the Leeds leg would go ahead, but in May 2021, the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, confirmed that it would be completed. However, with the publication of the Integrated Rail Plan in November 2021 (for a link, see list of reports below), the government decided that the eastern leg of HS2 would no longer reach Leeds but instead end in the East Midlands. Then in June 2022, the link between the HS2 line near Manchester and the West Coast Main Line was scrapped. This would have allowed HS2 trains to reach Scotland.
In early 2023, it was announced that the building of the terminus at Euston was being put on hold. Many interpreted this as meaning that it was being scrapped, with trains terminating at Old Oak Common, some six miles from Central London.
Finally, as we have seen, HS2 north of Birmingham has now been scrapped and the government is seeking private-sector funding to build the terminus at Euston and complete the line from Old Oak Common.
Arguments for scrapping the northern legs
The main argument given by the government was that projected costs have risen substantially above original estimates and that by cancelling the Manchester and east Midlands legs, the money saved could be better used elsewhere. The argument is one of opportunity cost. The cost of going ahead would mean not going ahead with better-value alternatives.
The government claims that £36bn will be saved and that this will be diverted to rail, road and other transport projects, primarily (although not exclusively) in the north of England. The money would be spent between 2029 and 2040. Projects include spending additional money on the planned upgrading of the rail link between Manchester and Liverpool, Sheffield, Leeds and Hull; building a new station at Bradford; developing a mass transit system for Leeds and its surroundings; a £2.5bn fund for improved transport for smaller cities, towns and the countryside in the north of England; extra funding for transport in the east and west Midlands, including funding a Midlands Rail Hub. Out of the £36bn, £6.5bn would be for projects elsewhere, including road improvement.
In order to judge whether the diversion of funds represents a better use of money, a full analysis of costs and benefits of the various projects would need to be conducted and compared with an updated cost–benefit analysis of continuing with the legs to Manchester and the east Midlands and possibly reinstating the Leeds leg too.
One possible benefit for the government is a political one. It hopes that promising more local projects rather than HS2 will appeal to the electorate in large parts of the north of England who are suffering from poor and unreliable transport links. However, most of these projects will be started well beyond the next election and this political gain may turn out to be small. Indeed, cancelling HS2 may breed cynicism, with people wondering whether any promised new projects will actually be delivered.
Arguments against scrapping the northern leg(s)
The benefits originally identified from HS2 will now be lost. It is not just that the northern legs of HS2 would have provided faster travel to Manchester and Leeds, but the new lines would have reduced congestion for slower trains and freight on existing lines. This has been the experience in countries such as Japan and Spain, which have invested heavily in new, separate high-speed lines.
When the line is completed to Birmingham, the HS2 trains will be able to continue north of Birmingham on existing lines. But these lines are heavily congested, which will limit the number of HS2 trains that can use them. Also they will be restricted to 110 mph on these lines as they have no tilting mechanism. Also they will have a maximum capacity of only 550 seats (a single train set) as the platforms at Manchester Piccadilly cannot accommodate double-set trains. The existing Pendalino trains on the West Coast mainline can travel at 125 mph as they do have the tilting mechanism and they have a higher capacity of 607 seats.
Then there are the signals that cancellation sends to industry about whether governments can be trusted to follow through on public-sector projects. Many business had expanded or relocated to places near the HS2 routes. Many others will wonder whether the promised new projects will go ahead. Indeed, shortly after giving a list of the projects (some of which had already been built or were being built), the list was removed from the government website. There is already a mood of scepticism amongst the electorate. Polling following the initial announcement showed that a majority believed that it was unlikely that the Conservatives would deliver the other projects if they won the next election.
The opportunity cost argument that the money would be better spent on alternative transport projects is predicated on various assumptions. One is that the money will actually be spent, which, as we have seen, people consider doubtful. Another is that the only choice is either spending a fixed pot of money on the northern leg(s) of HS2 or spending it on the alternative projects announced by the prime minister. It could be argued that the government should proceed with both the full HS2 and these other projects, and fund it by extra taxation. Investment as a percentage of GDP is low in the UK compared with other countries. Over the past 10 years, it has averaged 17.8% in the UK. This compares with 21.0% in the USA, 21.5% in Germany, 23.7% in France and 25.4% in Japan. Also, public-sector investment is low in the UK compared with that in other countries.
Assessing the arguments
Many of the costs and benefits of long-term projects, such as HS2, occur many years hence. There is, therefore, a great deal of uncertainty over their magnitude. This makes it extremely difficult to reach a clear conclusion over the desirability of cancelling HS2 north of Birmingham or continuing with it. Under such circumstances, politics tends to dominate decision making.
- Rishi Sunak promises more rail, road and bus links
- The HS2 rail line: what has been cut and what will replace it?
- HS2 explained: What is the route now, what are the costs and why is the Manchester leg being axed?
- Rishi Sunak finally axes HS2 in the north – weeks after The Independent revealed plan
- HS2 | Timeline of a mistreated megaproject
- HS2 scale-back creates ‘chilling effect’
- How HS2 caused the UK to lose focus on ‘levelling up’ during years of high-speed rail delays
- What Rishi Sunak scrapping HS2 – and promising a new ‘Network North’– means for the north of England
- HS2: Why Rishi Sunak’s big gamble may not pay off
- ‘Managed decline’: the uncertain future for British rail after cuts to HS2
- Investment outside London could bring £100bn boost to economy, says Bank of England’s former chief economist
- HS2 surgery is the wrong choice say leading academics
- Why has HS2 ended up being so expensive?
- Ten problems with Rishi Sunak’s Network North announcement
- International investors are laughing at the HS2 shambles
- Spain’s high-speed trains aren’t just efficient, they have transformed people’s lives
BBC News (4/10/23)
Financial Times Gill Plimmer, Phillip Georgiadis, Jennifer Williams and Jim Pickard (4/10/24)
Sky News, Sarah Taaffe-Maguire (5/10/23)
Independent, Jon Stone and Adam Forrest (4/10/23)
New Civil Engineer, Rob Hakimian (4/10/23)
Construction News, Catherine Moore (5/10/23)
The Conversation, Steven McCabe (28/9/23)
The Conversation Tom Arnold (4/10/23)
BBC News, Faisal Islam (5/10/23)
Financial Times, Philip Georgiadis, Gill Plimmer and Jim Pickard (6/10/23)
Channel 4 News, Helia Ebrahimi interviews Andy Haldane (27/9/23)
RailTech, Simon Walton (3/10/23)
The Guardian, Gwyn Topham (25/9/23)
The Guardian, Helen Pidd (5/10/23)
The Guardian, Nils Pratley (4/10/23)
The Guardian, María Ramírez (11/10/23)
Government Press Release
- PM redirects HS2 funding to revolutionise transport across the North and Midlands
Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street, Department for Transport, and The Rt Hon Rishi Sunak MP (4/10/23)
- HS2 Outline Business Case: Economic Case
- Updated Economic Case for HS2
- HS2: strategic case
- The Economic Case For HS2
- The Economics of High Speed 2: Economic Affairs Committee – First Report
- HS2 Phase Two economic case
- Oakervee Review of HS2
- Full business case High Speed 2 Phase One
- Integrated Rail Plan for the North and Midlands
Department for Transport (2012)
HS2 Ltd (August 2012)
Department for Transport and High Speed Two (HS2) Limited (October 2013)
Department for Transport and High Speed Two (HS2) Limited (October 2013)
UK Parliament (March 2015)
Department for Transport and High Speed Two (HS2) Limited (July 2017)
Department for Transport and High Speed Two (HS2) Limited (February 2020)
Department for Transport and High Speed Two (HS2) Limited (April 2020)
Department for Transport (November 2021)
- Why have the costs of HS2 (in real terms) risen substantially since the first estimates in 2012?
- Identify the types of environmental costs and benefits of the full Y-shaped HS2 project. Why might such costs and benefits be difficult to measure?
- Is the opportunity of cost of proceeding with the full Y-shaped HS2 a range of other transport projects? Explain.
- Find out the level of public-sector investment expenditure as a percentage of (a) total government expenditure and (b) GDP in some other developed countries and compare them with the UK. Comment on your findings.
- Should the decision whether or not to go ahead with the Manchester and east Midlands legs have been delayed until a new updated cost–benefit analysis had been conducted?
- If most of the benefits from the originally planned HS2 will be now be lost with the line ending at Birmingham, should this leg to Birmingham also be cancelled, even though many of the costs have already been incurred? Explain your reasoning.