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Why high-speed rail projects cost 10 times more in Britain than France

hs2 costs
hs2 costs

In his final days as Prime Minister, Gordon Brown promised to invest £20bn in a high-speed rail line that would ferry thousands of commuters from the north to the south of England.

“This is also a momentous day in the long and glorious history of British railways,” Brown said during a speech in 2009.

Almost 14 years later, the expected cost of building the HS2 rail link has ballooned to more than £100bn, 8.5 times more than comparable projects elsewhere in Europe.

“If we are going to be solving the big problems that the country faces, we do have to have an answer as to why it costs 10 times more to build high speed rail in this country than in France,” Jeremy Hunt said at Tory conference in Manchester on Tuesday. “That is totally and utterly unacceptable.”

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According to analysis by Britain Remade, the stretch of HS2 from London to Birmingham will cost £396m per mile, making it one of the world’s most expensive railways. In France, similar projects cost £46m per mile.

The project has since been branded “unachievable” by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, with the northern leg of the rail link now expected to be scrapped entirely.

However, the spending problem is endemic within Britain’s infrastructure system, making the UK a global outlier.

Crossrail was delayed by years and was billions over budget. The Edinburgh tram system was budgeted at £375m in 2007, a cost which ballooned to £776m by the time it opened in 2014. Upgrading the TransPennine Route was expected to cost £289m and finish in 2019. It is still incomplete, and the costs are estimated to be £10bn.

Even if HS2 was going to cost the amount budgeted in 2013, it would still be 3.7 times more expensive than France’s line between Tours and Bordeaux, according to Sam Dumitriu, of Britain Remade.

His research with Ben Hopkinson found that tram projects in Britain are 2.5 times as expensive as those in France on a per mile basis. Building underground railways costs twice as much as in Italy, three times as much as Germany and six times as much as in Spain.

Spain is a particularly strong example of how infrastructure can be built more quickly and cheaply, says Dumitriu, where standardised station designs are used and speed is prioritised.

Over an eight-year period, Madrid built an 81-mile underground network at a cost of £68m per mile, a ninth of the cost of the Jubilee Line extension. Spanish techniques included hiring six tunnelling machines to operate 24/7 to get the work done as quickly as possible.

At the heart of this, the Chancellor says, is Britain’s planning bureaucracy.

“It takes a ridiculous amount of time, if you need to do a big project, before you can even get a shovel in the ground,” Hunt said on Tuesday. “There are so many national policy frameworks that you have to do consultations on.

“Everyone wants to protect the environment, everyone wants to be fair to local residents who are impacted by new infrastructure. But it can take five years to go through all those processes.”

Part of this problem is because planning rules in the UK are also more powerful than those on the continent, says Stephen Glaister, a professor at Imperial College London’s Centre for Transport Studies.

“We have in this country common law, which means that individuals have the right to property, and the state has to obtain those rights through due process to get things done,” Glaister says.

“That’s what these planning requirements are all about. In Europe, they have Napoleonic law, which means the state starts with the rights and individuals operate on licence from the state.

“If the French state or another European state wants to build a railway, the starting position is they have the right to do that.”

This means projects do not get so delayed by public consultations. When the French government launched a major programme of pressurised water reactors, one minister, who was asked how he approached public consultations, put it bluntly: “We have a saying: when you are draining the swamp, you do not consult the frogs.”

“Major infrastructure projects [in Britain] are forced to wrestle with much greater bureaucracy than ever before,” says Dumitriu.

This is partly due to new environmental requirements. The environmental impact assessment for the Sizewell C nuclear plant in Suffolk, which is in planning, was 44,000 pages long, according to Britain Remade. This was 13,000 more than that for Hinkley Point C, which started construction in 2018, despite the fact that Sizewell C is being modelled as a “close copy” of the former. This suggests the planning burden has expanded rapidly in a short space of time.

The problems are the same for airport terminals, runways and renewable energy projects.

“It can take seven years to build a new offshore wind farm, and then another seven years on top of that before you can get connected to the grid,” Hunt said at the fringe event held by the Centre for Policy Studies. “That is ridiculous. There are a lot of things that we have to do to sort out the way we build infrastructure.”

But planning and Nimbyism are not the only problems, says Dumitriu. Build costs in the UK are higher. This is partly because we have higher costs associated with design. It is also because our sector is particularly reliant on subcontractors.

Little more than an eighth of the UK construction workforce is permanently employed, according to the Construction Products Association. This means the sector is particularly exposed to volatility in labour costs, such as the record-breaking rise in wages over the last year.

Cancelling HS2 will present a catch-22 for the Government. It may make the initial upfront costs disappear, but it will contribute to bigger cost problems further down the line.

A clear pipeline of work is key for the sector to be able to plan ahead, says Glaister. This allows them to maintain a stable workforce and keep efficiencies of scale.

“The Treasury is concerned about this. They talk about the need to create a pipeline of projects so that these things aren’t just one-off projects and the industry can save costs by moving from one job to the next in a systematic way,” says Glaister. Cancelling HS2 will destroy a big chunk of that pipeline.