Tuesday briefing: Billions spent, no track built and still no trains – 14 years on, what happened to HS2?

In today’s newsletter: As the government prepares to scale down its ambitious high speed rail project again, we explore what happened

Sign up here for our daily newsletter, First Edition

Good morning. In 2009, there were two big high speed train announcements. In the UK, the Department for Transport set out plans for HS2, a line running from London to Birmingham and then onwards to Manchester and Leeds. The initial route to Birmingham was projected to cost £16.3bn with predictions its first passengers would jump on board in 2026.

Across the Channel, the French government also had plans for faster trains. Ministers there announced a vision to double its high-speed network to about 2,500 miles at a cost of about €18bn (£15bn), with trains running on the new tracks by 2020.

You probably don’t need to read the rest of this newsletter to figure out what happened. Vive le français.

But, please stick with me as the UK government is expected to reveal a further scaling back of ambitions for HS2 this week that could see it run from (nearish to) central London to Birmingham, at a cost of about £200m per kilometre, compared to £32m/km on average for 20 recent high speed projects on the continent.

Let’s take this opportunity to ask why the country that inaugurated the first inter-city railway in the world connecting Liverpool and Manchester (in 1829) is now so bad at delivering rail projects on time and to budget?

After the headlines I’ll speak to Kevin Smith, editor-in-chief of International Railway Journal, and Roderick Smith, a professor of railway engineering and the DfT’s chief scientific adviser between 2012 and 2014.

Five big stories

  1. UK news | Lucy Letby will face a retrial on a charge of attempting to murder a newborn baby girl. Prosecutor Nick Johnson KC told Manchester crown court that the prosecution would retry Letby on one of the allegations – the attempted murder of a baby girl in February 2016 – but not on the other remaining counts.

  2. Child protection | Child abuse experts and police have warned that access to increasingly extreme pornography is driving a rise in harmful sexual behaviour among young people. One charity said there had been a 30% increase in under-18s contacting them, and a 26% rise in adults contacting them because they were concerned about the behaviour of a young person.

  3. Prison | The chief inspector of prisons has said that one in 10 prisons in England and Wales are barely fit for purpose and should be shut down if alternative buildings can be found. Charlie Taylor told the Guardian that about 14 Victorian jails were so poorly designed, overcrowded and ill-equipped that they could not provide proper accommodation for inmates.

  4. Cost of living | The cost of living crisis will probably cause thousands of premature deaths in the UK and significantly widen the wealth and health gap between the richest and poorest, a study published in the journal BMJ Public Health has suggested.

  5. Health | An antiviral drug used to treat patients with Covid-19 may be causing mutations in the virus and fuelling the evolution of new variants, scientists have said.

In depth: ‘When I go to other countries’ railway projects, they’re laughing at us’

The site of the Cursor Street railway station, under construction as the Birmingham terminus for the HS2 high speed rail line.
The site of the Cursor Street railway station, under construction as the Birmingham terminus for the HS2 high speed rail line. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

First some history. The UK was the world leader in trains until the 1960s, when Japan launched the first shinkansen, or “bullet train”, between Tokyo and Osaka.

Faced with the choice of starting a brand new high speed network or upgrading current tracks, the UK picked the latter and ran state-of-the-art diesel Intercity 125s across the country. They were still capable of hitting 201km/hr.

France, and most of Europe, went for the first option. The Ligne à Grande (LGV) Sud-Est from Paris to Lyon opened in 1981 and the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) was born.

There are now 67 miles (108km) of high speed track in the UK – on HS1 linking London St Pancras and the Channel tunnel. France has almost 3,000km of high speed lines, Germany has about 1,500km, and Spain – which only started its high speed ambitions in 1992 – has almost 4,000km. In China there is more than 40,000km.

“The difference is that clean, green transport is a clear government priority in Europe and elsewhere,” says Kevin Smith. “While it’s not been here, there hasn’t been the consistency and drive to get it done.”

Kevin says it’s hard to directly compare the cost of HS2 to high speed projects in other countries but “studies show it is by far the most expensive to build per km”.

“The big thing is the population density of the UK,” he says. “Obviously it is more expensive to build through built up areas, than through largely empty French countryside.”

The government has spent more than £600m buying up more than 900 properties along the HS2 route (including paying £6.8m for comedian John Bishop’s grade-II listed mansion that he bought for £2.3m eight years earlier).

“In France there would be fewer houses, they’d be cheaper [to buy], and they’d just build it,” Kevin says. “It’s more extreme in China where they really do just build, often with viaducts over towns and villages.”


Think of the environment

Environmental concerns also add costs and delays, but may mean we end up with a truncated rail system that won’t be able to deliver the carbon emission reductions that had originally been hoped for.

“HS2 is expensive because of the amount of tunnels, which have had to be built because of environmental concerns or nimbyism,” says Kevin. “If you look at the tunnels through the Chilterns, I’m not sure they would have done that in other countries – they would have cut and covered more.”

Kevin believes if the HS2 route is cut, it won’t do much to help with the government’s aim of using the new line to relieve passenger train congestion on the west coast mainline to free up space for freight trains and thus take lorries off the roads.

“The UK government doesn’t have a modal shift strategy,” he says. “A whole idea of HS2 was to provide capacity for freight, by scaling back the line you limit those ambitions.”


Levelling up or creating a north-south chasm

An HS2 tunnel under construction.
An HS2 tunnel under construction. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

The main ambition of HS2 is to help level up the north of England, but if the line stops at Birmingham it will – in the words of Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham – create “a north-south chasm”.

Roderick Smith, who was the DfT’s chief science adviser during the planning stages for HS2 between 2012 and 2014, says even back then he was calling on the government to build a new link between Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds before starting on the link to London.

“We should have started in the north, where there is a real need for better connectivity, and then once they were connected link them to London,” says Roderick, a northerner. “Think what that would have done for levelling up.”

Roderick says many of HS2’s problems have been caused by trying too hard to build “the world’s best railway, when we just need one that works”. He says HS2 is so expensive because huge efforts have been made to “future-proof” the track to have curves gentle enough to run trains at 400km/hr even though trains will only reach a maximum of 360kph.

He also reckons Old Oak Common is a perfectly acceptable terminus for London. “It’s hugely expensive to bring the line right into the city centre, and many of the passengers final destination isn’t in the centre. If you look at Japan many of the stations are on the outside, and that has boosted those communities.”

“Everyone blithe says we’re world class, and this will be a world class railway,” Roderick says. “What we’re world class at is cock-ups, and wasting public money. When I go to other countries to look at their railway projects, they’re laughing at us.”


The world’s worst high speed line

But, maybe HS2 isn’t the most embarrassing rail project in the world. Kevin, the editor of the IRJ, suggests taking a look at the US where there is only 49.9 miles of high speed track on isolated segments of Acela Express between Washington and Boston.

In California, a plan to link San Fransisco and Los Angeles in two hours and forty minutes rivals HS2 for both delays and costs. In 1999, the line was expected to cost $25bn and take 16 years to build.

To date not a single mile of track has been laid, and its projected cost have soared to $88-128bn. When it does open, hopefully in 2029, it will only run between Merced (about 130 miles southeast of San Francisco) to Bakersfield (about 115 miles north of LA).

I take back everything I said about Old Oak Common being far away.

What else we’ve been reading

Republican presidential candidate Florida governor Ron DeSantis.
Republican presidential candidate Florida governor Ron DeSantis. Photograph: Bryon Houlgrave/AP
  • Ron DeSantis was famed for his iron grip on Florida’s Republican party – but it seems as though that influence may be waning. Richard Luscombe’s report from Miami examines why loyalty is dwindling and what it could mean for DeSantis’s political prospects. Nimo

  • From the films The Hand of God and Mixed by Erry, to the novels of Elena Ferrante to the smash hit gangster TV drama Gomorrah, why is so much of the coolest, edgiest culture set in Naples? Tobias Jones finds out. Rupert

  • The New Yorker’s interview with the activist and writer Astra Taylor on her new book that uses insecurity as “a basis for finding commonalities” is illuminating. Nimo

  • Not sure what colour will suit your lounge or dark back bedroom, call in a “colour curator”. Joa Studholme, who has had that job for posh paint company Farrow & Ball, tells Genevieve Fox the secrets she has learned from advising more than 4,000 people on their colour dilemmas. Rupert

  • You have probably seen the purportedly empowering info-graphics and listicles that claim the cure to stress is meticulously following a 15-step skin care routine, running a hot bath, burning candles and journalling. Ellie Violet Bramley explains why these “faux self-care” hacks are not actually that effective and how their superficiality can make us feel even worse. Nimo


Declan Rice of Arsenal looks on during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur.
Declan Rice of Arsenal looks on during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur. Photograph: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

Football | Arsenal are relieved after receiving the news that Declan Rice’s back injury is not serious. The midfielder was withdrawn at half-time in Sunday’s draw with Tottenham but is understood to have experienced a back spasm and hopes to be back for the visit to Bournemouth on Saturday.

Cricket | Richard Gould, the chief executive of the ECB, has acknowledged that access to cricket in state schools is “a real problem”, as he set out the game’s initial plans to tackle the systemic discrimination identified by an independent commission.

Champions League | Uefa has been accused of presenting “completely untrue” evidence to its own independent inquiry into the near-disaster at the 2022 Champions League final. The match between Liverpool and Real Madrid descended into chaos as thousands of supporters suffered long static queues, crushing, dangerous policing and attacks by local thugs.

The front pages

Guardian front page 26 September

The Guardian leads with exclusive comments from the chief inspector of prisons, with the headline “Shocking state of prisons means ‘one in ten’ should be closed down”. The i says “Labour to hit private schools with 20% VAT in first year of winning power”.

The Times reports “PM alarmed by runaway cost of HS2”, while the Financial Times follows the same story with “Scrapping HS2 will hurt trust in UK, say Birmingham City’s US owners”. The Mirror headlines “Brand: Sex assault claims grow” and the Sun takes a similar line with “Cops probe Brand ‘sex assaults’”.

The Telegraph previews a speech from the home secretary, under the headline “Braverman: 780 million ‘refugees’ shows rules must change”. The Mail reports “Suella: Channel migrants are not refugees”.

Today in Focus

An armed police officer in central Westminster.
An armed police officer in central Westminster. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Why are London firearms officers laying down their guns?

Last September, a Metropolitan police operation led to the killing of Chris Kaba, an unarmed 24-year-old man, by a firearms officer in south-east London. Last week, the officer identified only as NX121 was charged with murder.

The Guardian’s crime correspondent, Vikram Dodd, tells Michael Safi that the decision to prosecute a colleague for murder has led to dozens of officers putting down their weapons and asking for clarity about their duties.

Cartoon of the day | Nicola Jennings

Nicola Jennings cartoon

The Upside

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

Chris Raven in his workshop.
Chris Raven in his workshop. Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian

As a child Chris Raven loved woodwork and was strikingly good at it but over the course of his life, the hobby fell away. He spent most of his adulthood working in IT, after a short stint in teaching. It was only after his mother died and he found his old school reports that he remembered just how much he enjoyed it, so, in his 70s, he combined woodworking with his other big passion: music.

Raven quickly committed to the vocation and enrolled on an Irish flute-making workshop, followed by a baroque flute-making workshop. He is now possibly the only baroque flute maker in the country, selling his creations to amateurs and professionals alike. “It has been enormously satisfying. Enormously satisfying,” Raven says.

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

Bored at work?

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

• This article was amended on 27 September 2023. An earlier headline said “miles of track built” but in fact no new track has been laid for HS2.


Rupert Neate

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Thursday briefing: Billions over budget, years overdue – no one knows what will happen to HS2
In today’s newsletter: The ambitious, controversial high speed rail project has take over a decade to make any real progress – and may drag on for years yet

Nimo Omer

09, Feb, 2023 @6:40 AM

Article image
Thursday briefing: How the north’s rail services went off track
In today’s newsletter: Perhaps nowhere in the UK are trains more in a crisis than in the north of England, where problems are thought to be costing the region up to £400m a year. What could be done to fix it?

Archie Bland

01, Dec, 2022 @6:54 AM

Article image
Thursday briefing: Unpicking Grant Shapps’ war on cyclists
In today’s newsletter: Shapps wants penalties, licence plates and speed limits for cyclists. Here are a few things that might put the brakes on his war against the two-wheeled scourge

Archie Bland

18, Aug, 2022 @5:25 AM

Article image
Thursday briefing: What really happened at Chequers?
In today’s newsletter: As fresh allegations of lockdown gatherings emerge, the former prime minister finds himself facing new questions – and a new threat to his political future

Archie Bland

25, May, 2023 @5:54 AM

Article image
Tuesday briefing: What do we know about the new prime minister’s plans?
In today’s newsletter: He’s the first British Indian prime minister and a sign of hoped-for stability among Tories. Here’s what we know so far about his policy agenda, political weaknesses and more

Archie Bland

25, Oct, 2022 @5:57 AM

Article image
Tuesday briefing: What Humza Yousaf’s win means for Scotland, the SNP and independence
In today’s newsletter: The former health minister inherits a party, country and movement in flux from predecessor Nicola Sturgeon

Archie Bland

28, Mar, 2023 @5:56 AM

Article image
Tuesday briefing: The global fallout from Niger’s coup
In today’s newsletter: The country has been considered stable in an unstable region. So what sparked a coup – and what effects will it have?

Nimo Omer

01, Aug, 2023 @5:41 AM

Article image
Tuesday briefing: What we know about the NI protocol deal – and what we don’t
In today’s newsletter: the key takeaways from Rishi Sunak and Ursula von der Leyen’s announcement of the Windsor agreement

Archie Bland

28, Feb, 2023 @6:42 AM

Article image
Tuesday briefing: Rail strike chaos – what you need to know
In today’s newsletter: Archie Bland looks at how to navigate the biggest rail industrial action in Britain in decades – and why it’s just the start of a summer of discontent

Archie Bland

21, Jun, 2022 @5:19 AM

Article image
Tuesday briefing: After Russia retaliates, what might happen next?
In today’s newsletter: Russia responded to an attack on a military supply line with a devastating blitz on civilian targets. Peter Beaumont speaks from Kyiv about defiance, destruction and what to expect

Archie Bland

11, Oct, 2022 @6:02 AM