HS2 needs to happen, and faster. That’s the conclusion of David Higgins’s report on High Speed 2 out today. As well as backing up the government’s key arguments for the project on capacity grounds — not speed, which he says is a ‘by-product’ — the chairman of HS2 Ltd has made some recommendations for improving the project. Here are the key things you need to know about the Higgins report:
1. Extension to Crewe should happen in Phase One
Higgins suggests that the first phase of HS2 should include another 43 miles of track from Birmingham to Crewe. This would be brought forward from Phase Two and built by 2027, providing better connections to Stoke, Shrewsbury and Chester among others. Higgins said on the Today programme this morning the Crewe extension would be ‘relatively straightforward to build at relatively low cost’. Although money isn’t included in the Phase One budget, it has already been set aside for Phase Two.
2. Euston should be rebuilt on a grander scale
Describing the current station as a ‘mess’, Higgins has said the government should ‘aspire to do Euston properly’ when it is rebuilt as part of HS2 – echoing comments made by George Osborne last month. The report outlines a ‘level deck design’ similar to St Pancras, which would ‘enable access from one side of the station to the other, better connecting the station to the local area and community’. Higgins believes this would ‘maximise the aesthetic and jobs impact of the rebuilt station.’
3. HS2 shouldn’t necessarily be linked to HS1
For another £700 million, plans are afoot to connect HS2 to the High Speed 1 line running to Dover and mainland Europe. Higgins claims this wouldn’t be the best use of HS2’s capacity and instead compares changing stations from Euston to Kings Cross to ‘transferring from one terminal to another at Heathrow’. He believes the government should reconsider whether this is the best use of money.
4. Faster progress on the Hybrid Bill is crucial
The key piece of legislation behind HS2, the Hybrid Bill, was introduced to Parliament last year but has made little progress through the Commons. In the report, Higgins attributes the ‘uncertainty over the legislative timetable’ as a main reason for not reducing the costs further. On the Today programme, he made it clear that ‘time is uncertainty; uncertainty leads into cost and eventually money’:
‘My message to the government and the public is that infrastructure is critical to this nation. We can’t have a logjam of approval process. I understand the reason for debate and proper consultation but time is money’
5. The costs are stable — for now
Whether HS2 continues to have cross-party support will be entirely dependent on the costs. Labour has continued to demand reassurances on the costs of the line and whether those costs can be reduced any further. Higgins has stated that first stage of HS2 will cost £21.4 billion, plus £3 billion for the trains, including some contingency funds.
However, he has avoided lowering the budgets any further due to the lack of parliamentary progress — as well as indecision from the government. The report states ‘the more certainty there is about the timescale, the lower the costs will be’. Yet Labour’s response to the report has been rather positive. Shadow transport spokesman Mary Creagh has said Labour will ‘vote to support the Hybrid Bill at Second Reading when the Government finally brings it to Parliament’. This appears to be pretty unequivocal support for the project — at least, for now.