‘Nothing to see here,’ was the gist of the chancellor’s comments last week as he denied Euston would be axed to save cash. But is it really that simple for a job like HS2?
So, just how real was the news that HS2 wasn’t going to finish at Euston and instead its London terminus would be rerouted a few miles west to Old Oak Common?
Well, according to chancellor Jeremy Hunt, it was all nonsense. The essence of what he said on Friday lunchtime was that he had already given the scheme his full backing in the autumn. He had even trekked up to Solihull to Laing O’Rourke’s site where it is building a new station called Interchange, stuck on a hard hat, climbed into some safety gear and posed for pictures with a digger driver. What more proof did people need?
“I don’t see any conceivable circumstance where [HS2] does not end up at Euston,” said Hunt in response to a story on the front page of The Sun, not normally noted for its coverage of huge infrastructure projects like this, which said Euston was being ditched to save money.
Not a bit of it, added Hunt. “I prioritised HS2 in the autumn statement. We have shovels in the ground, we are building HS2 and we are going to make it happen.”
But the news caused a huge stir because the scheme is so politically charged, especially among Conservative voters. It panicked many in the industry and sent them scrambling to find out whether it was all true and would other bits be dumped as well.
“They always have to look at options if you have to cut money out of the programme,” shrugged one boss, with the air of someone who has seen this sort of thing before. He said he had heard no chatter in the run-up to the story appearing, no gossip among his peers that Euston might be cut. And he should know given he runs a firm working on another part of the scheme. For him, it was a familiar pattern with one caveat. “They have to look at options all the time and how to save money is quite normal. Happens all the time. What’s not normal is that it emerges in the media.”
One source close to the Euston project offered this view: leak a story to a sympathetic newspaper and see what happens. “Is the boss [Rishi Sunak] kite flying or has it come from rebel Tory MPs desperate to stop it.” Both could be true, given the author of the piece is the Sun’s political editor.
Others are taking Hunt’s words with a pinch of salt. “They have to show nothing is off the table,” an infrastructure expert said. Maybe it was, all along, a warning shot to HS2 to keep a lid on costs, one to tell HS2 bosses very publicly that the scheme does not have a blank cheque if it needs more cash.
But there are genuine worries HS2 will cost more than people are letting on. According to the latest six-monthly update to parliament, the first phase of the scheme is unlikely to meet its £40.3bn target cost. Euston has already been reduced in scope from 11 platforms to 10 to save cash. Money, or a lack of it, talks.
A national newspaper story suggesting the project might be scaled back also helps throw some red meat to anti-HS2 backbench Tory MPs, who fall broadly into two camps: those who want the whole thing scrapped and think it is an enormous waste of money and those in the north of England, the so-called Red Wall, who think the money should have been spent improving links in the north. London gets too much money, the argument goes, and for even the most ardent fan of HS2, it is hard to disagree with that sentiment.
Still, whichever way it is presented, binning Euston makes no sense for many. “There is a bloody great big hole in Camden!” one source said of the Euston work, which is being carried out by a joint venture of Mace and Spanish firm Dragados. “Kicking off passengers at Old Oak? What are they on?” he sighed.
Hunt sort of agreed when he admitted: “We have not got a good record in this country of delivering complex, expensive infrastructure quickly.” Terminating a prized infrastructure project in an area of London best described as up and coming does seem, on the face of it, not a good look for UK plc.
It’s an interesting move not to connect a new railway line to the city centre. I wouldn’t want to have to explain that decision
“It’s an interesting move not to connect a new railway line to the city centre,” deadpanned the chief executive. “I wouldn’t want to have to explain that decision.”
But while the prospect of passengers hacking their way through a station to get a connecting train to the middle of London might seem the definition of madness, several experts contacted by Building said that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
Euston could be mothballed or given a staggered opening with 2038 being floated. And Hunt did not commit to an opening date, some noted. One senior figure with considerable knowledge of infrastructure schemes offered this view: “You would need to finish the tunnelling and freeze the scheme – all doable.”
He added: “I believe that this is serious. It is possible to terminate at Old Oak Common and have a slick interchange with the Elizabeth Line into central London, so it’s not a completely unworkable solution. I really hope it does not happen and I think it’s highly unlikely. But these days, you never know.”
One thing that might have stopped ministers taking the nuclear option is the amount of money that has already been spent redeveloping the site – and the amount in compensation they presumably would have to shell out if the job was pulled.
Not bringing the line into central London would have an impact on the benefits for passengers and create considerable pressures on other parts of the transport network
John Armitt, NIC
Costain, Skanska and Strabag are boring tunnels in and out of Euston at a cost of £1.2bn. Mace’s scheme is officially worth £1.3bn. “Work is well under way at the Euston end so there would be millions of aborted costs to explain,” the infrastructure specialist added.
But the nagging doubt that some parts of HS2 will get chopped does not go away. Another chief executive said he did not think the whole project would be scrapped but offered, pithily: “Just bits.”
It seems too big a target not to hack away at, even though it was waived through with a great gusto by a Tory prime minister, Boris Johnson. The scheme would open up the door to the Northern Powerhouse, improving the West Midlands’ links above and below it, he told MPs in February 2020. “None of it,” he said, “makes any sense without HS2.”
Those wanting HS2 pulled completely are more than likely to be left disappointed. The chief executive working on the scheme said there was “no way” this would happen. “You just have to look at the sites,” he explained. “They are so advanced – it’s gone way, way beyond that stage.”
Talking to Building, Sir John Armitt, who was recently reappointed to chair the National Infrastructure Commission, says diplomatically of the proposal to bin Euston: “While it’s vital to keep project costs under close control and review, not bringing the line into central London would have an impact on the benefits for passengers and create considerable pressures on other parts of the transport network. If it’s seriously being considered, I’d need to be persuaded that any such decision was wise at this stage of the project.”
He, too, talks of the “significant investment [that] has already been made” in HS2 and no doubt for him pulling the scheme is as unthinkable as it would be a gigantic waste of money.
Saving money by wasting money is a new one to many but to repeat an earlier quote: these days you never know.
Additional reporting by Daniel Gayne