HS2: Where is it now?

Undermasthead Shape

The HS2 rail programme is the sibling of HS1 that opened in 2003, connecting St Pancras International and the Channel Tunnel. Unlike the HS1 rail programme which was broadly well supported by the public and by industry, the HS2 Project has been met with support in some areas and adversity and concerns in others, all of which have grown in intensity following the impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic. With the UK entering lockdown and the movement of people being stifled, questions in connection with the necessity of HS2 have again arisen.

It is arguable that the pre-coronavirus world, was a world where large cities were the hub of the economy and greater connection was essential. With the world now in a state of uncertainty and questions being asked around de-capitalisation of countries and de-commercialisation of the new world economy, will projects such as the HS2 railway be more or less of a priority?

In the pre-coronavirus world, there were already existing concerns for HS2’s viability. The Government launched a review in 2019 of the HS2 project in response to significant social pressure to consider whether the project should forge ahead. The review uncovered incorrect forecasts of property costs revealing that the project could cost up to double the official 2015 estimate of £56bn. HS2’s planning team admitted that the project was running around £30bn over budget thus, the overall project may cost over £100bn. The review further unveiled the delayed opening of the first phase which is no longer the end of 2026 but instead the first train is planned to run on the route between 2028 and 2031. Nonetheless, the Government and Judiciary continued to support the project regardless of some public interest in abandoning the scheme.

Shot in the arm for the construction sector?

In recent weeks the UK has witnessed the rekindling of economic life with the opening of shops, schools and some offices however, the rail industry remains one of the largest casualties of the Pandemic as a consequence of increased home teleworking and changes in commuting business travel and leisure. In a recent study, WSP, the professional services company, estimated a 77% decrease in public transportation in urban areas across the UK.

With Government approval to continue HS2 construction in April 2020, HS2 contractors have been given the go ahead to start building. This has launched the procurement of track contracts and progress is being made daily, construction activities are ongoing and procurement activity on the project is continuing. An estimate of 400,000 supply chain contracts will be created throughout Phase 1 alone, 95% of which are estimated to be won by UK based businesses, with two thirds of those being SMEs. With the creation of thousands of jobs and the drive of investment across Britain, it can be argued that Phase 1 will play a pivotal role in our economic recovery of the construction sector from the Pandemic.

Economic recovery of the Rail industry?

HS2 has launched various initiatives which may help the country in its economic recovery from the Pandemic and in its prospects for new trade deals with the rest of the world following Brexit:

  • Boosting local economies, HS2 has partnered with local companies to offer free training, work experience and job opportunities.
  • HS2 London contractors have launched the Empowering Communities programme which is delivering jobs, skills and community projects along the London part of the HS2 route.
  • HS2 announced its need for over 16,000 construction workers, engineers, architects and designers to build HS2’s first phase alone.

HS2 has generated a demand for construction workers and businesses supplying to the rail industry, possibly remedying many economic problems which arose as a result of COVID-19, but will we look back with the benefit of hindsight in future years and consider this investment a wise use of the public purse when we have experienced a never seen before restriction on travel which will have both short, medium and long-term effects?

A recent study by Retail Dive conveyed the concern that 4 out of 5 organisations working within the rail sector have reported a significant decline in revenue because of the drop in demand for railway travel. The COVID-19 Pandemic has affected passenger rail with a significant decrease in traffic, which is expected to remain low even after we hopefully recover from the Pandemic. On the other hand, HS2 Minister, Andrew Stephenson, highlighted that similar outbreaks of HIV/AIDS, the Zika virus or SARS, all saw consequences of reduced demand for rail travel, however, such reductions were always thankfully short-term. Thus, inferring, COVID-19 will not have reduced the longer-term viability of HS2.

The Big C’s

Despite all of the above, the construction of the HS2 project has continued throughout lock down and since, with remained focus on the three “Big C’s”:

1) A low Carbon transport network

2) More Capacity across the country’s rail network

3) Better Connectivity in the Midlands and North.


Indeed this can be seen in the press to be making some progress:

  1. A low Carbon Network:

Initiatives taken to achieve a low Carbon Network:

  • HS2 have trialled the UK’s first electric forklift zero pollution vehicle aimed to improve air quality for both its workers and local communities, reducing the UK’s carbon footprint.
  • The first 2 HS2 tunnel boring machines are in construction which will later be used for 3 years of digging the longest and deepest tunnels which is stated to reduce environmental impacts in rural areas.
  • HS2 is working with Roadbridge to incorporate the use of thermal cameras which will monitor and protect skylarks and their nests around the working site.
  • HS2 have already created over 60 new wildlife habitats since the project commenced between Hillingdon and North Warwickshire. Plans to translocate 50 rare wild orchids to new locations across the West Midlands are due to go ahead, continuing the creation of new wildlife habitats.
  • HS2’s Interchange Station was the first railway station across the globe to receive an award, ‘The BREEAM Outstanding Certification’ for its environmentally friendly design
  1. More Capacity across the country’s rail network:

In addition, various initiatives have been undertaken to increase Capacity across the country’s rail network:

  • The completion of a 17-metre-high headwall which will in years to come become the south portal of the 10-mile long Chiltern tunnel. Future environmental work will cover the headwall with material evacuated from the tunnels and trees planted to benefit the surrounding countryside, therefore, furthering HS2’s commitments to a Carbon neutral future and providing greater Capacity to our country.
  • Preparation works for the HS2 Interchange Station in Solihull are now in operation. HS2 and contractors are improving the road network in Solihull by installing a huge bridge above the M42.
  • The next transformation of Euston Station has begun. The stations western ramp and the removal of a canopy by Network Rail, HS2 and Skanska is complete providing the capacity needed for HS2’s new route.
  1. Better Connectivity in the Midlands to the North.

Initiatives taken to Connect the Midlands to the North:

  • HS2 project’s first Phase has commenced providing greater connection between London and Birmingham

Maybe there should be a fourth C for “cultural discoveries”?

With the commencement of the first phase, the project has uncovered various archaeological artefacts along the way:

  • Discovery of an Iron Age murder victim’s skeleton buried deep at Wellwick Farm.
  • The world’s oldest railway roundhouse on the site of the new Birmingham Curzon Street Station.
  • The remains of the Royal Navy explorer who led the first circumnavigation of Australia and was Captained by Matthew Flinders were discovered in Euston.
  • A Victorian time capsule uncovered during the demolition of a derelict Hospital in London.
  • Tools used by our ancestors from the Mesolithic to the Iron age, around 8,000 BC to 43 AD.
  • A timber Stonehenge-style formation with evidence of human activity dating from the Neolithic to the Medieval period near Wendover.

Will COVID-19 delay HS2?

Despite the increase in costs and delayed timescale, the Government “strongly” advised against cancelling the project. Benefits such as increased jobs in construction, better connectivity and reduced transport times were reckoned to outweigh the negatives. Campaigners saw the Coronavirus outbreak as an opportunity to apply further pressure to stop HS2 and have continued to pursue cases against the project despite a large volume of previously dismissed claims. The success of these claims remain highly unlikely as both the Government and Judiciary stand strong with their support for HS2 after giving repeated contractual notices to proceed, even after the impacts of COVID-19.

How have HS2 mitigated the COVID19 impact?

Companies across the HS2 supply chain have no doubt been hampered in their planned progress, due to social distancing measures and employees being furloughed.

By accelerating payments to companies within the HS2 supply chain and further encouraging suppliers to do likewise further down the chain (rather than strictly adhering to payments on contracted terms). HS2 hopes to reassure companies with a sense of stability and avoid cashflow issues.

It is clear that the Government are committed to the continuation of HS2 and like other large infrastructure projects, this type of capital investment will arguably be central to the recovery and recuperation of the economy. There is a long time to go before the new trains roll off down the track so maybe don’t buy your tickets just yet, but we will continue to keep an eye out for the new timetable connecting North and South and London’s continued economic progress spreading clickety-clack northwards along the tracks.