Coffee House

David Higgins warns politicians of the costs of dithering on HS2

3 February 2014

3:19 PM

3 February 2014

3:19 PM

Sir David Higgins is making the most of the first few weeks in his job as chief of HS2 Ltd to fight the new line’s corner. In an interview in today’s Daily Telegraph, Higgins makes a strong case (arguably better than anyone from the government) for the line, explaining why there is no alternative. He warns that the existing rail lines risk becoming similar to the ‘Piccadilly line at rush hour’:

‘There are no new train paths. We’d love to put more trains on the west coast. It performs at 85 per cent. It’s a very tired, old, smartly refurbished railway line that is right at capacity. It’s the busiest mixed use railway line in Europe and it’s showing. We can’t get more trains on it. HS2 offers 18 train paths an hour each way’

Higgins also says ‘the clock is always ticking’ and political dithering remains the greatest threat to the project. While the Conservative leadership are ‘passionate’ about the line, he is less convinced about Labour. As well as a concern HS2 is a ‘vanity project’ — albeit one they founded — Labour’s main worry is whether HS2 will be a waste of money and time. ‘They’re behind it but they want to be convinced that it will be managed responsibly’, said Higgins who thinks these are ‘legitimate questions’.


When I interviewed Andrew Adonis last year, I asked him about the management of HS2 and what Labour believes should be done. His thoughts were unpublished at the time but are interesting in this context. Adonis indicated that Labour had influenced Higgins’ appointment and he would be beneficial to the project:

‘I believe Labour will stick with HS2, but we want to see much better project management. Within two days of Ed Balls’ speech David Higgins was appointed head of HS2. I call that a result. I think we will see a string of improvement to the project management over the coming months’

How strongly Labour believes in the project will soon be tested. The response from Ed Balls and Miliband on Higgins’ first report, due out in March, will be a crucial indicator of whether Labour’s support will continue through to the general election. The Hybrid Bill is currently awaiting a second reading in the Commons — something the advocates of the line want to see soon. But there is still a lot of doubt of whether the bill will be passed before the election. Higgins is right: the longer our politicians wait, the less chance there is of HS2 actually happening.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments
  • John

    Higgins’ recommendations: Prime points are:

    1. No HS2 to HS1 connection in London.

    2. A new Crewe high-speed rail hub station.

    The Crewe hub is interesting. High-speed trains will reach Crewe hub then run on existing classic compatible tracks to Liverpool, Manchester, Chester or wherever. This makes sense as journey times can be quickened to most destinations that currently radiate from Crewe.

    The HS2 trains run slower on classic compatible tracks than the existing Virgin tilting trains, as they do not tilt. Have HS2 trains tilt and times to Liverpool, Manchester, Chester, etc will be much quicker. The Virgin trains have a maximum speed of 150mph which currently they cannot reach because they do not have in-cab signalling. Then there are massive savings in not running a high-speed track to Manchester, so phase two of HS2 north of Crewe can be cancelled.

    The time saved between a) running a full captive high-speed line into Manchester and b) using the proposed Crewe high-speed rail hub and tilting HS2 trains will be minimal to the point it is just not worth extending high-speed track north of Crewe. Then Liverpool, Chester, Manchester, Preston, etc, will have excellent journey times to London and Liverpool will not be at an economic disadvantage to Manchester. It is wrong to put major cities at economic disadvantages over neighbours.

    The current rail traffic to Glasgow and Edinburgh is less than what goes to Liverpool alone. Most fly to London from Scotland. So extending very expensive HS2 to Scotland is economic madness.

  • mumfordbooks

    Political Cartoon’s, are for you to enjoy their deeper meaning. Try our NEW competition just add New Title and Captions to each Political Cartoon, small image changes will be allowed, not more than 33% to be changed. A choice of original cartoons:

    Uncle Sam-Canada-Under-One -Flag Original Print
    Just Google (NEW PRINT John Bull’s Mother Scotland) for more information.

    HS2 is for the “well heeled” see cartoon, we should be building for the next 200 years!

  • Mark McIntyre

    NO2 HS2 – without dithering !

  • Maidmarrion

    Hands up all those who want to get from London to Birmingham 30 minutes quicker – at a cost of megabucks more than stated??

    • Mark McIntyre

      Who would want to go to Brum anyway ? !

  • BarkingAtTreehuggers

    It is difficult to follow why the Spectator clientele is huffing and puffing about this non-news story – HS2 is a done deal. The project will happen, train station designs are at RIBA stage E.

    There are no new facts presented here, this is a filler article to obscure the fact of 1) a Camerloon defeat in the House on Thursday, followed by b) a Camerloon defeat in the Lords on Friday, followed by 3) the first trougher head rolling tonight. What will Tuesday bring – good tidings on Owen ‘Big GM’ Paterson’s future or just more flood warnings?

  • jazz606

    First things first.
    We should sort out the national flooding, drainage and sewage problem before indulging in an expensive and unnecessary vanity project like HS2.

  • BillCourtney

    Britain’s tired old railways could be rejuvenated at comparatively low cost if we adapted the eddy current braking systems used on German railways. This would allow the carrying capacity of the whole of our existing network to be increased without the social disruption of HS2.
    The braking option discussed at deserves serious discussion before we finally commit ourselves to HS2.

  • Kitty MLB

    Quite honestly the whole idea should be scrapped,
    costs a fortune, will reek havoc across the country and by the time
    it is completed the world would have moved on.
    What is it with our politicians, they play monopoly with our money,
    toy soldiers with our military and we know boys just love playing with train sets!
    quite honestly, the mind baffles!

  • Smithersjones2013

    Well lets get this right. Higgins acknowledges the risks that this project has but then wants them to push on quickly and throw money at it as fast as possible? Yeah that one works NOT.

  • Agrippina

    Perhaps McLoughlin could start by publishing the report that he told us last week he is not going to release. It is a matter of trust, we don’t trust them with our taxes & he wants to suppress whatever is in that report.

    Such a pity journos do not bother to want to know the truth, but happy to write a piece like this based on no evidence.

    • realfish

      Perhaps it’s because the report is 2/3 years old and contains obsolete data, publishing it would serve no purpose whatsoever

      • Agrippina

        Then we can judge that for ourselves.

        • realfish

          I think that that’s the job, that in a democracy, we expect experts and those elected, to judge. That’s their job; to govern for all, not sub-contract their decision making to others – not averse, themselves, to ‘wilfully mislead’
          Failing that we bow to groups, who in their own interest, want to pick and choose what’s good for the country as a whole. Little more than anarchy if you ask me.

          The parallel with franking is noteworthy, the swampies having ‘judged for themselves’ on the basis of their own myopic assessment that the country doesn’t need it, it’s not safe and it will not take place, irrespective of the greater good.

          • Agrippina

            It is great that you have such confidence in these ‘experts’. I do not trust govts at all and you have seen that Osborne has made it go around his constituency, so that he can get re-elected. Cheryl Gillan MP for Bucks sold her house just prior to the announcement of HS2 and has moved to Esher how fortunate as her house was in the way of the route! She was keen on HS2 before she was dumped as Welsh Sec, and now speaks against it.

            • In2minds

              In using tactics to promote their dream very similar to the climate change believers the supporters of HS2 have painted themselves into a corner. So Higgins thinks HS2 is vital, well he would say that!

              No right minded person can trust the supporters of this up-coming disaster. HS2 is an EU vanity project that is being forced on the public. In other words a bit like the stupid plan to flood the Somerset Levels.

              It’s interesting that Lord Smith of the EA says we cannot afford to protect both farming and cities. But we are going to spend a vast sum of money upon a railway that has no business case. Oh and the public get stung for both.

          • Mynydd

            When I pay someone to do a job I want to see the result. It’s the taxpayer’s money that paid for the report, not the governments, they don’t have any. We should see the report.

      • Alexsandr

        we paid for it. we have a right to read it.

      • StoptheWhiteElephant

        FACT that report has been updated FOUR times since with the same result. So DON@T say it 2/3 years old. And how do you know it has obsolete data in it? Have you seen it?

    • StoptheWhiteElephant

      It’s interesting that the report that DfT VETOED is about to get a new head appointed by the government, John Manzoni.

      He was the man heavyly critizised for the huge BP oil disaster off Texas in 2007 in which 15 people lost their lives. Also he has been again critizesed with a fracking company in the U.S. for alleged violations of hazardous chemicals at 52 sites in Pennsylvania.

      Frances Maude who was one of those pressuring for the veto of the MPA report on HS2 said of this man’s appointment.

      “Manzoni had “an impressive record of leading global operations and delivering complex, challenging briefs”.

      With a disater record like that you must ask what is going on in Westminster!

  • James Strong

    There’s very little case for building HS2 for the benefit of businessmen.
    By the time it is built video conferencing and virtual meetings will be so well established that face-to-face meetings will be less important than they are now.
    Yes, personal contact will still have to take place sometimes, but the cost necessary to reduce the journey times is far too high.
    It would be better to improve communications that don’t come into London. Make it easier to travel between other cities and see them grow.

    • HookesLaw

      Its being built for the whole British public. Just what qualifications do you have to pontificate? We get telephone conferencing now. My pontification is that the great future for expanding on it is over stated.

      • James Strong

        ‘Just what qualifications do you have to pontificate?’ is a not very subtly disguised ad hominem, Hookey. Last week you called me an idiot. Deal with the issues, if you can.
        Yes, we get telephone conferencing now, but there are plenty of people for whom that was not the norm in their early working years.
        As they retire and people who have always been accustomed to it move up there will be less need for in-person meetings.
        Add to that the technological improvements, (we don’t know in detail what they will be but we can confidently expect them),and there is less and less need for business travel.
        Is HS2 being built for the whole British public? No, it isn’t. It reinforces the bias in favour of London. Large areas of the country will see no benefit at all.
        And the cost? Staggeringly expensive, even if you believe the current figures. Do you believe them?

  • CharlietheChump

    As with the 50p tax rate announcement the Ed Muppets are not interested in benefitting the country and, if they can dump HS2 as a “rich mans folly line” or “bankers express” to play to their (winning?) core support, they will be satisfied.

  • AGB

    In his interview with Benedict Brogan, Sir David Higgins appears to demonstrate a willingness to mislead about the need for HS2. Data from the Department for Transport shows that Virgin trains and East Coast trains are the least overcrowded mainline trains serving London when measured by standing passengers in the morning three hour peak.

    While the West Coast Mainline has few spare train paths, it is in a very similar situation to most of the other mainlines serving London. However, London Midland are expected to add three trains in the morning peak and five trains in the evening peak in May 2014 through their Project 110 programme. Further north, the work being done by Network Rail in the Stafford area will allow four extra trains per hour to run in each direction when completed. Two other relatively inexpensive infrastructure changes near Bletchley and north of Rugby would further increase the number of train paths available.

    While acknowledging that the Milton Keynes – Euston journey is the most heavily used one on the West Coast Mainline, existing overcrowding on London Midland commuter services could easily be addressed if Virgin trains were also allowed to carry some of these passengers at peak times.

    Spending £50 (+) billion on a single rail project is a disproportionate amount to address a supposed problem when there are many rail capacity issues around the country in need of urgent investment.

    • Alexsandr

      putting in a grade separated junction at Hanslope/Roade would give more paths

      and diverting the Tring stoppers into Crossrail would reduce congestion at Euston.

      100% agree with your point ‘there are many rail capacity issues around the country in need of urgent investment

    • BarkingAtTreehuggers

      The construction budget for HS2 is £28bn. When was it raised? Who raised it? Who signed off that raise? Who will benefit from a raise if we found there was one?

      • Mynydd

        Whoever produced the construction budget of £28bn should be sacked. At the present stage of the project it’s not possible to have a budget at all let alone give it a figure.

  • itdoesntaddup

    It’s £750,000 a year just for his salary for a start. Plus all the other hangers on…the HS2 budget was £300m for 2013/14 – enough to pay for quite a few Syrian refugees.

    We could save a very large sum of white elephant investment and consultant expenses by getting on and cancelling it now.

  • AnotherDave

    The Department of Transport has refused to release the passenger numbers for the West Coast Main Line.

    • HookesLaw
      ‘Several services are enduring loading factors of 160% with London
      Euston-Birmingham New Street accounting for three of the most crowded
      services. This follows just a week after HS2 opponents claimed that trains leaving Euston were only 52% occupied. This was selective and failed to account for London Midland services as reflected by these figures.’

      And as this report
      points out the £9 billion WCML modernisation should have cost £20 billion. The only reason it only cost 9 was that it was ‘descoped’ ie loads of it missied out.
      “It appears that the West Coast Route Modernisation project team were
      more focused on within-budget/on-time delivery of the project than the
      medium/long-term component performance, and this approach has clearly
      cost NR and the industry dearly in terms of poor performance.”

      The WCML is a mess.
      But we should aslo remember that a record investment is now committed to the existing rail network, ie. £37bn during the 2014-19 period.
      Once again we see the usual suspects ignoring the facts staring them in the face in order to feed their prejudice. Ignorance is bliss to them and allows them to rant their rubbish and stay happy.