HS2 diggers return but can debt-ridden UK really afford to restart controversial high-speed project?

  • Video report by ITV News Correspondent Chris Choi

Hugely over budget, massively delayed and condemned by environmentalists, HS2 finally gets underway on Friday with its "spade in the ground" moment in Solihull witnessed by prime minister Boris Johnson. Mr Johnson, who had put the high-speed project in doubt after becoming PM when he promised a review amid spiralling costs, threw his weight behind the project ahead of the launch of the first shovels. At the official start of its construction, Mr Johnson insisted the railway was "crucial" for the country and would remain so for years to come.But with the UK's debt hitting £2 trillion for the first time in history following government rescue measures during lockdown, many have questioned a project that has already cost the tax payers billions and looks increasingly redundant in light of changing post-Covid-19 working patterns.

How much has HS2 cost so far?

The project had already run tens of billions of pounds over budget and several years behind schedule when the prime minister gave it the green light in February 2020. Two months’ later, ministers gave the go ahead for it to enter the construction phase.

The project was given a revised budget and schedule as part of his decision.The costs of HS2 were estimated in 2010 to be between £30.9 billion and £36 billion.Last year, the Government-commissioned Oakervee Review warned last year that the final bill for HS2 could reach £106 billion at 2019 prices.

Artist impression of HS2 Interchange station interior view. Credit: HS2 Ltd.

Why is it so expensive?

There are several reasons why HS2 is costing so much.

The railway will sit on concrete slab track, which is more robust than traditional ballast but comes at a higher cost.

Putting the line below ground into tunnels and cuttings at several locations reduces the impact on surrounding areas but is more expensive.

Buying property on the route is also incredibly costly.

What happens now?

The four main contractors for Phase One between London and the West Midlands will now switch from enabling works, scheme design and preparatory work to full construction.

Construction will begin with the biggest engineering challenges – such as the stations and tunnels – followed by the main viaducts and bridges.

Most activity this year will be focused on HS2’s city centre stations and major construction compounds such as in Old Oak Common, west London and Calvert, Buckinghamshire.

A Stop HS2 campaigner unfurls a banner in trees outside Euston Station in London as activists set up a camp within the trees. Credit: PA

Is HS2 still necessary in the light of Covid and the change in the UK's working habits?

One of the main benefits of HS2 will be the increase in capacity it will provide to Britain’s railways.

HS2 Ltd says the high-speed trains will carry more than 300,000 passengers a day, but they will also create space for more services on existing routes such as the West Coast Main Line.

But with the pandemic showing many people can work from home, many have questioned the need for a rail network designed to ease commuting.

On a visit to Solihull in the West Midlands to mark the formal start of construction on HS2, the prime minister insisted "transport infrastructure" remained "crucial".

"I think loads of people have had the benefit of working from home. It's been magnificent and it's definitely enhanced people's quality of life in many, many ways and I congratulate people on the hard work they've put in from home," Mr Johnson said.

"But I've got absolutely no doubt that mass transit transport infrastructure is going to be crucial for our country, not just now, but in the decades ahead. "This incredible project is going to be delivering 22,000 jobs now, but tens of thousands more high-skilled jobs in the decades ahead, linking Birmingham, eight miles away there, to London, just 38 minutes behind me when HS2 is built." Is HS2 destroying more jobs than it's creating?

Mr Johnson said "I profoundly disagree" with opponents to HS2 claiming it will displace jobs. He went on: "All the experience I have of mass transit projects is that the compound benefits, the compound economic impact, is huge. "Just in this area here in Solihull. We're at the heart of a kind of motorway roundabout system and this will unleash development and growth potential in an area that has been totally unrecognised, not used, its potential never really exploited or brought forth. "That will generate, I'm absolutely certain, tens of thousands of jobs in the decades ahead.

Some environmental groups are against HS2. Credit: PA

Why is it controversial with environmentalists?

Environmental groups claim construction work will devastate many natural habitats.

Communities living on or near the route, particularly in the Chilterns, are angry at the impact the railway will have on the area as a chunk of the line passes through an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, where the line passes through the Misbourne Valley.

The Woodland Trust states that 108 ancient woodlands will be damaged due to HS2, 33 sites of Special Scientific Interest will be affected and 21 designated nature reserves will be destroyed.

Mr Johnson said HS2 would be part of a greener economy.

"Transport connectivity is at the heart of the build back better, build back faster and build back greener recovery," he said. "Because don't forget that HS2, whatever people say - and I know environmentalists have their points - but HS2 is going to be a significantly greener way to travel for you, for me, than going by plane or by car."

What do those behind the project say?

Boris Johnson has said the high-speed railway will create thousands of jobs and create vital links between urban areas.“HS2 is at the heart of our plans to build back better – and with construction now formally under way, it’s set to create around 22,000 new jobs," the prime minister said.

“As the spine of our country’s transport network, the project will be vital in boosting connectivity between our towns and cities.”Transport Secretary Grant Shapps claimed Friday’s event “marks a major milestone in this Government’s ambitions to build back better from Covid-19”.

He went on: “Shovels in the ground to deliver this new railway means thousands of jobs building the future of our country’s infrastructure.

“This fantastic moment is what leaders across the North and Midlands have called for – action to level up our country by boosting capacity on our railways, improving connections between our regions, and spreading prosperity.”

HS2 Ltd chief executive Mark Thurston said: “This is a hugely exciting moment in the progress of HS2. After 10 years of development and preparatory work, today we can formally announce the start of full construction, unlocking thousands of jobs and supply chain opportunities across the project.

“We are already seeing the benefits that building HS2 is bringing to the UK economy in the short term, but it’s important to emphasise how transformative the railway will be for our country when operational.

“With the start of construction, the reality of high speed journeys joining up Britain’s biggest cities in the North and Midlands and using that connectivity to help level up the country has just moved a step closer.”