Magazine article The Spectator

Martin Vander Weyer: Despite Rumours to the Contrary, the High-Speed Loco Has Left the Drawing Board

Magazine article The Spectator

Martin Vander Weyer: Despite Rumours to the Contrary, the High-Speed Loco Has Left the Drawing Board

Article excerpt

There's a lot of negativity around HS2, and I sniff a Brexit connection. You might think Leave campaigners whose aim is to boost British self-belief would promote the idea that we have a talent for grands projets such as the Olympic Park and Crossrail, rather than a propensity to deliver half what's promised at double the cost. But there's also an overlap between Tory MPs opposed to the northbound high-speed rail link, usually because it bisects their constituencies, and Tory MPs opposed to the government on the EU referendum. So I suspect that's where the trouble lies.

The spin is that cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood is reviewing the project 'as fears grow' that it will bust its already inflated £55 billion budget. Among cost-paring measures, the line may not reach Manchester -- or if it does, won't stop at Manchester Airport. A station at Sheffield's Meadowhall shopping centre may also be erased; and sections of expensive tunnel are for the axe.

But my intern mole who fetches coffees for HS2's bosses in Canary Wharf says most of that is nonsense. Tunnelling can actually be cheaper than ploughing across premium surface property. Manchester Airport's station is more certain to be built than most, because the airport itself will bear a chunk of the cost. Meadowhall, beside the M1, would not be a mere shopping stop but a major interchange for South Yorkshire's conurbations. What's more, initial contracts worth almost £12 billion are now in prospect: love it or hate it, the high-speed loco is leaving the drawing board.

The super-hub

That being so, my advice to sceptics is to train your binoculars on Old Oak Common. This urban wilderness where HS2, Crossrail (now the Elizabeth Line), Underground and Overground meet is the west London 'super-hub' that could also become a satellite city, with thousands of new homes, a cultural quarter and a new QPR stadium. The scheme was promoted by mayor Boris Johnson but in March its master architect, Sir Terry Farrell, said it was 'heading for disaster' because of lack of co-ordination and haste to complete Crossrail. A true test of British project-management skills will be whether that cock-up can be averted and the site developed to its fullest potential.

An HS2 passenger changing at Old Oak for the Elizabeth Line could be at Heathrow in 11 minutes or Bond Street in less than ten. To me that signals a different opportunity to lop the HS2 bill: why bother tunnelling from Old Oak to the ill-connected terminus that is Euston? And if £5 billion could be saved, why not spend it extending the Elizabeth Line or Crossrail 2 to Stansted airport, which should (in defiance of the Davies Commission) be encouraged to build the second runway for which it has ample scope? Then we'd really make some progress.

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