HS2: The Great Train Robbery: Channel 4 Dispatches

Category: News Release

Monday 11th February, 8pm Channel 4

Channel 4 Dispatches investigates whether High Speed Two (HS2), a high-speed rail line connecting London to Birmingham by 2026 and then Manchester and Leeds by 2033, will bring the jobs and economic growth to the North of England the government is promising.

Major HS2 spending is about to start. In 2011 the estimated cost was £33bn. Four years later the official forecast ballooned to £56bn. Some experts are predicting a £100bn final bill.

An exclusive poll for Channel 4 Dispatches, conducted by ComRes, asked adults across Britain where the HS2 billions should be spent:

  • Only 20% of voters want this multi-billion-pound High Speed line to be built.
  • Just 7%, less than 1 in 10, think HS2 will benefit them to any extent
  • Almost Two thirds of those living in the North of England want the money invested in  Northern Powerhouse Rail instead, a scheme that would link major cities in the North of England and help hard-pressed commuters. The government told Dispatches it’s committed to both HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail but says HS2 needs to be built first.

Dispatches correspondent Liam Halligan has spoken to a senior cabinet source who has revealed that although the national accounts show HS2 costs of £4bn/year over the next ten years, ministers have secretly allocated £6bn/year to build the line for the next decade.  This is the same amount Network Rail spends per year on maintaining and upgrading the entire rail network.  

The same cabinet source says ministers are considering saving costs by only building HS2 to Birmingham and are ‘actively considering’ axing the entire HS2 scheme.

In his first interview since stepping down as Chair of the Office of Road and Rail, Prof Stephen Glaister, who was the Government’s top in-house rail advisor, joins the debate over HS2. He tells correspondent Liam Halligan HS2 has not been thought through. ‘There was no big picture analysis. We just don’t know whether there would have been a better way of spending the money. You might ask the question what else could you do? You could give larger sums of money to Manchester to Birmingham, to Newcastle and let them do as they saw best for their local communities.’

Professor Stephen Glaister, who is still a Government advisor, says stopping HS2 in Birmingham would be the worst of all worlds. You just really have a white elephant if you only go to Birmingham.”

The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, tells Dispatches “The big scandal would be if the rumours come true that HS2 stops at Birmingham... that will be criminal, that will be a complete waste of money.”  When asked what he would decide if asked to choose between HS2 or linking up cities in the North of England, Burnham says, ‘We need both but if that’s what it came down to I would choose rail investment West to East across the North of England. I believe that is the single highest transport investment priority for our country’  

The Government says that for every pound spent, the full HS2 scheme will generate £2.30 in economic growth. Dispatches has commissioned independent consultants OXERA to research the economic case for HS2. Their analysis, which assumes HS2 will suffer no further cost over-runs, suggests:

  • The Northern Powerhouse Rail scheme would generate £2.70, a far higher return  
  • The analysis also shows that if the HS2 scheme was cutback to save money and ended in Birmingham, each pound spent would generate £1.15, a low return for such a large complex project.

Alastair Darling, who was Chancellor when the first government study into HS2 was launched ten years ago. tells Dispatches. “I actually didn’t think it would go that far along the line.”  He now believes the project should be scrapped. “If you really want to do something to expand the economies of the Midlands and the North of England you should ask yourself what transport links do they need. If I was standing on a platform somewhere in Greater Manchester at the moment I'd be more bothered that my train hasn't turned up than about a high-speed link which is not going to get to me for some considerable time, if ever.”

Mark Thurston, the new HS2 Chief Executive, insists to Dispatches he will keep the scheme on budget. “What I'm very clear on and what HS2 is very clear on is that the budget for this scheme is £56 billion. That’s the task we've been set by government and that's what we work on until government advise us otherwise. “He dismisses the argument that HS2 is a white elephant, and that money should be diverted to linking Northern cities.    “We have to do both. When High Speed 2 and the work of Northern Powerhouse Rail brings together an integrated rail network to connect those Northern cities, its will transform the northern economy, it will transform as a consequence the UK economy, it will re balance that prosperity and wealth gap that we know we have between North and South. And that’s the prize. Thats what we got to hold our nerve on until government advises us otherwise.” 


UK Rail statistics:          

  • Last year, on just one rail network in the North there were over 34,000 cancellations. Half of the trains were late
  • Network Rail spends £6 billion annually maintaining and upgrading the entire rail network.
  • Delays are at a 13-year high – with four of the five worst performing train companies serving the North of England.
  • The two most consistently over-crowded trains in Britain are both routes serving Manchester.
  • Over the last 10 years, government spending on transport per person has been two and a half times higher in London than in the North of England.

HS2 Facts:

  • HS2 was initially sold as the fastest High-Speed line in the world, almost halving journey times to the North.
  • The estimated cost in 2011 was £33billion, this escalated to £56 billion in 2015.
  • Some Experts now predict a £100 billion bill – that would make it the world’s most expensive railway.
  • The Government has already poured several billion pounds into HS2 not least buying up land on the route. But the big spending is about to kick in – with the national accounts showing costs of over four billion pounds every year, for the next ten years.

HS2: The Great Train Robbery: Channel 4 Dispatches - Mon 11th February, 8pm Channel 4

Written and Presented: Liam Halligan 

Executive Producer: Eamonn Matthews 

Filmed, Directed and Produced: Ken Kirby 

Production Company: Quicksilver Productions