Thursday briefing: Billions over budget, years overdue – no one knows what will happen to HS2

<span>Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA</span>
Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA

Good morning.

We all push deadlines and put off important tasks on our to-do lists. But generally, most of us do eventually get round to finishing what we started. The same cannot be said of HS2, the controversial high speed rail line 14 years in the making, purported to be the answer to England’s north-south divide.

Despite all the time and money poured into the project, according to reports, the government is planning to cut HS2 services by almost half and reduce the maximum speeds of the trains. The Department for Transport did not deny the claims, instead saying that they “do not comment on speculation”.

As the government seemingly continues to hack away at the very things that made HS2 impressive and aspirational, calls for the project to be scrapped altogether have been reignited.

For today’s newsletter, I spoke to Guardian transport correspondent Gwyn Topham about what’s been happening with HS2 for all these years and why it has taken so long to get off the ground. That’s right after the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Turkey-Syria earthquake | Monday’s earthquake has left nearly 300,000 people displaced in Syria. The combined death toll has almost reached 16,000 as rescue efforts continue to find survivors in freezing temperatures.

  2. Ukraine | During his surprise visit to Britain, Volodymyr Zelenskiy made a historic address to parliament, appealing for the UK to supply his country with more fighter planes. The plea has forced Rishi Sunak to order a defence ministry review into whether Zelenskiy’s request can be met, despite previously being opposed to giving UK jets.

  3. Politics | Former Labour MP Jared O’Hara, who was on trial for submitting fake invoices to fund his “galloping” drug habit, has been found guilty of six counts of expenses fraud at Leeds crown court. He, alongside his co-defendant Gareth Arnold who was also found guilty of three out of six fraud charges, will be sentenced today.

  4. US | The secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has alleged that China has a “fleet” of surveillance balloons which it has used over five continents. The claims come as authorities tried to retrieve debris from a high-altitude Chinese balloon that a US warplane shot down.

  5. Pollution | New planning guidance that sets air pollution limits for home and office developments effectively bans wood burners in new and refurbished buildings in London, as it is a major contributor to pollution linked to a plethora of health problems.

In depth: ‘Politics rather than construction has caused delays – it is constantly getting knocked back’

Construction work continues at the HS2 high-speed rail site at Euston in London.
Construction work continues at the HS2 high-speed rail site at Euston in London. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

“The idea was that you could have a very fast service so that people who want to go from the north to London can do that quickly, and vice versa, which then would free up these other lines for things like freight or the commuter services,” Gwyn says of HS2. But that is not how things have panned out. And as the government looks for politically expedient places to cut costs, the high-speed rail link will likely come under closer scrutiny.


Why have there been so many delays?

This week’s reported setback was the latest of many. The project was first put forward in 2009, less than a year after the economic crash. It took three years for it to be greenlit by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government in 2012. What ensued in the following decade was a tedious, incessant back and forth between those involved in the project, the government more broadly and the public. By 2016, it was already three years behind schedule. Boris Johnson’s government launched a review in 2019 about whether the project should even go ahead. Six months later the review was published, and found that the costs had escalated even more, with projections that the railway would cost £106bn in total – more than double the initial budget.

Construction did not actually begin until autumn 2020. And to top it all off, despite all the painstaking planning that took place, in 2021 the then transport minister, Grant Shapps, announced that the eastern leg of HS2 to Leeds would be scrapped. At this point, the whole thing looked increasingly shambolic, weighing down a government that did not even seem to really support it.

“Fundamentally, I’d say it’s the politics rather than the construction that has caused the delays,” says Gwyn. “Nothing’s really gone wrong with it from a construction point of view, but, for 10 years, they’ve been saying we’re going to build this and it constantly keeps getting knocked back.”


Why has it been so expensive?

While delays have undoubtedly run up the bill, Gwyn points out that it was always going to be an expensive project because building infrastructure in a country like the UK is simply always going to be. “England is a part of a small, densely populated island. The train will be going through the middle of London, tunnelling under the most expensive property in the country,” Gwyn explains. “Residents who are affected by HS2 are also being compensated, which they should be, and it costs a lot of money to build a sustainable railway that isn’t going to break down.” There’s also the small issue of moving rivers and, without some kind of divine intervention, that is time consuming and costly.

Then there are materials, man hours and risk assessments, not to mention double-digit inflation. HS2 is designed to last the next hundred years, when extreme weather has already been damaging existing tracks, Gwyn says: “If you don’t do it properly, it will break down, and you will have to pay to repair it.”


What do the public think?

A Stop HS2 protest.
A Stop HS2 protest. Photograph: Maureen McLean/REX/Shutterstock

A survey conducted at the end of 2021 by Statista found that 19% of respondents shared the views of my colleague Simon Jenkins and were strongly opposed to HS2, while only 8% were strongly in favour, and 38% of respondents said they either “Don’t know” or “Neither support or oppose”. This perhaps gives away the national mood towards HS2: two polarised ends and a big, generally indifferent, middle.

There are a number of reasons why people take against HS2. The most compelling perhaps is the environmental impact of the high speed project. Over the years the commitment to biodiversity has weakened and environmental campaigners have pointed out the widespread damage that has been, and will continue to be, inflicted on wildlife and woodlands.

Supporters of the project argue that by better connecting the north of the country to the midlands and the south, the railway will cause a decline in air travel and car journeys. However, according to forecasts from HS2 itself, it will not cut carbon emissions over 120 years because of the emissions caused by the overall construction and operation of the project. (To put into context however, this would still only be 1.18% of Britain’s annual transport emissions.)

Generally however the opposition to HS2 comes from the perception that it is taking too long, costing too much and is too disruptive.


So when is it going to be done?

Not any time soon, is the short answer. The current estimate is between 2029 and 2032, but it will more likely be closer to 2038 if it’s to run through central London. But by that point out, who knows, it might just be a service that runs between random suburbs and avoids city centres altogether.

At the end of the day, “rail costs a lot of money to run”, Gwyn says bluntly. “This cost was supposed to be spread over 15 to 20 years, and in that light, it’s not a ridiculous amount when it’s supposed to be the spine of the whole railway.” The issue ultimately lies less with the ballooning costs and more with the reality that all of this resource, expense and expertise is being poured into a project that may not even end up being useful.

What else we’ve been reading

  • When did swearing get so bloody acceptable, asks Emine Saner, in a great piece about the evolution of language that confirms that curse words definitely aren’t just the preserve of those with a limited vocabulary. Hannah J Davies, deputy editor, newsletters

  • Joe Biden’s State of the Union showed ambition “a world away from anything the Tories have to offer”, thinks Martin Kettle, and should offer courage to Keir Starmer’s Labour to steer Britain away from “neoliberal economic assumptions”. Charlie Lindlar, deputy production editor, newsletters

  • Minipops has become a byword for televisual disgrace, legendary in its awfulness ...” Benjie Goodhart writes entertainingly on a TV scandal, 40 years on - and speaks to one of the children at its centre. Hannah

  • Harry Potter spinoff Hogwarts Legacy is one of the year’s biggest video games. But, as Keza McDonald writes in this week’s Pushing Buttons newsletter, for many diehard fans the decision to play it is complicated by JK Rowling’s statements on sex and gender. Charlie

  • For US Black History Month, Emily Lordi writes in the New York Times (£) on Whitney Houston’s enduring legacy - yes, of some of the best power ballads known to man, but also of lifting up other black women. Hannah


Football | While Manchester United and Leeds drew last night 2-2, the emir of Qatar has been considering a move to buy United for £4.5bn, far below the believed £6bn asking price. Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani’s ownership would also be a regulatory headache for Uefa – he already owns French champions Paris Saint-Germain.

Basketball | On Tuesday, LeBron James passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the NBA’s all-time scoring leader, a record once thought unbeatable. At 38 and still one of the league’s very best, the game has not seen anything like James – and never will again, Claire de Lune writes.

Skiing | American Mikaela Shiffrin claimed silver in the women’s super-G at the Alpine skiing world championships in France. The medal is her 12th in 15 career world championship races, tying an all-time record.

The front pages

Today is Thursday and the Guardian’s front page lead is “‘Give us wings’: Zelenskiy calls for UK fighter jets in historic address”. “Give us wings for freedom” – that’s the Telegraph, with the same headline as in the Times. “UKRAINE” – the Metro puts the British and Ukrainian flags between the “UK” and the “RAINE” in its one-word headline. “Send Zelenskiy all ours jets” – the Daily Express can’t resist giving the moment to Boris Johnson, a former prime minister. It’s all about Boris in the Mail too: “Now give him wings he needs for freedom”. “Thanks for the tea – now give me your jets” – on the front of the Sun, President Zelenskiy is shown meeting King Charles. The i says “UK warns Putin: we may send fighter jets to protect Ukraine”. The Daily Mirror carries “Zelenskiy’s RAF jets plea … Give us your wings of freedom”. A distantly framed Zelenskiy is shown in Westminster Hall on the front of the Financial Times, which leads on business: “Adani repaid $1.1bn loan in full after facing big margin call”.

Today in Focus

Haiti: a country in crisis without an elected government

The last elected Haitian senators left parliament this month. Amid raging gang violence, the country is at breaking point with a health and hunger emergency.

Cartoon of the day | Steve Bell

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

Birmingham theatre company Stan’s Cafe take complicated subjects and present them in entertaining ways. Their new show All Our Money explores the intricacies of local council budgeting, casting Bordesley – a giant teddy bear football mascot – as the new leader of Birmingham city council. Bordesley is more accustomed to performing to fans at half-time, but now has to allocate a £3bn annual budget on filling potholes, funding care homes, and setting car parking charges.

Director James Yarker was inspired by the real-life story of H’Angus the Monkey, who served three terms as mayor of Hartlepool. Yarker hopes that the show will humanise politicians and encourage people to engage with local politics.

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s crosswords are here to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until tomorrow.