Chris Grayling forced into late-night defence of HS2

FT, July 18, 2017

Chris Grayling, the UK transport secretary, fended off criticisms of the projected £56bn cost of the HS2 high-speed rail line in an unusual late-night ministerial statement sparked by MPs’ disquiet over the government’s handling of the project.

Mr Grayling was forced to come to the House of Commons after 10pm to make a formal announcement about the route of the northern sections of the high-speed rail project and the award of an initial £6.6bn of contracts for the southern, London to Birmingham section.

The secretary of state made the statement after MPs complained about the government issuing details of the plans, including a change that will bring trains capable of 250mph into Sheffield city centre, without addressing parliament.

Mr Grayling attributed his failure to provide a statement at the normal time in the afternoon to “cock-up, not conspiracy” and stressed the vital significance of the project. When complete in 2033, the project is intended to slash journey times and hugely boost rail capacity between London, Manchester and Leeds.

“HS2 will be the new backbone of the UK rail network,” Mr Grayling told the Commons. “It will transform the UK rail network from one built for the 19th century into one designed for the 21st century.”

Labour, which supports the high-speed rail plan, raised a number of questions about the project, including whether the project could be delivered for the £55.7bn price tag.

Michael Byng, a rail consultant, said over the weekend that the cost was likely to be as much as £104bn — five times as much per mile as HS1, the high-speed link to the Channel tunnel, which opened in 2007.

Mr Grayling said the UK had experience of delivering major projects, including the London 2012 Olympic Games and the current Crossrail project. “It’s currently on time and on budget and I anticipate it will remain this way,” Mr Grayling said.

The initial contracts included £1.4bn of work for a consortium including Carillion, the troubled UK contractor. 

Challenged on whether the contractor would be able to complete the work, Mr Grayling pointed out that it was part of a consortium and expressed hope that the company would recover.

The biggest change to the route plans for the northern part of the route announced in 2013 was the decision to take trains capable of reaching up to 250mph directly into the existing city-centre station in Sheffield. The government had originally planned a new station on the city’s outskirts.

Julie Dore, leader of Sheffield city council, said the move to bring HS2 into the city centre was “vital” for ensuring that Sheffield was well placed to maximise the benefits of the rail link.

However, Ed Miliband, the former Labour leader, MP for Doncaster North, criticised the route, which will take the Sheffield station further from his constituency.

Mr Miliband said that the routing decision flew in the face of “evidence, logic and, above all, the economic needs of South Yorkshire”.

Mr Grayling confirmed plans to open the first northern section of the line, linking Birmingham to Crewe, six years earlier than planned, in 2027. That section is vital to giving fast trains access to the London to Glasgow West Coast main line to serve destinations further north.

Mr Grayling said that, under the current plans, HS2 would shorten the London to Glasgow journey time to three hours 30 minutes from about four hours 30 minutes at present. But he said that the government was working on plans to reduce that time further, to just three hours.

The Sheffield city-centre route will include an option for trains to run from Sheffield on to HS2 to Leeds, providing a far faster connection between the two Yorkshire cities.

HS2 has become central to the debate over the government’s economic policy. There have been intense questions over why so much money is being devoted to a single flagship project when public spending in other areas faces a severe squeeze.

Some of those set to benefit from later phases remained concerned on Monday that high costs could lead to their cancellation. Those concerns are particularly intense in Yorkshire, due to be served by the project’s eastern arm.

Judith Blake, leader of Leeds city council, called for “full confirmation” of the link to the city and “for work to start on it early in order for the benefits to be felt by all areas”.