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A competitive Britain needs more HS2, not less

Buried in Water Orton there is a giant Mary Ann – a bulging bloated boring machine, eating all in its path with fearless precision. This is HS2’s boring tunnel, named Mary Ann. And it is an engineering marvel. 

It is a 125-metre-long steel snake and weighs around 1,600 tonnes, chewing its way through the ground to create a 3.5-mile tunnel. 

The Bromford Tunnel will take Britain’s bullet trains between Water Orton and Washwood Heath on their approach to Curzon Street, Birmingham’s termini. There are currently nearly 9,000 people in the West Midlands working on HS2, with a 450-strong team on the tunnelling operation in Water Orton. The site is packed with tunnelling specialists from around the world training local residents, creating a homegrown slate of British experts. This operation is creating careers for life. 

400 firms in the West Midlands alone are feeding into HS2, with over £1.7 billion of contracts awarded for local businesses. One such local business is Rope and Sling Specialists (RSS) in Sutton Coldfield, which is providing specialist lifting machines across HS2 sites. It is not just maintaining local jobs, it is adding them, with RSS expanding its presence in the region. 

But HS2 is an anomaly. The British state over recent decades has quite simply negated its responsibility to build necessary critical national infrastructure. High-speed rail is a glaring example of this. According to the latest data from the International Union of Railways – and the length of high-speed rail projects which has been completed or began since the release of this data – the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has 42,000 kilometres (km) of operational high-speed rail with 28,000 under construction. Spain has 4,327 km operational, 1,378 km under construction and France has 2,735 km in operation with an additional 560 km under construction. Even with HS2, the United Kingdom (UK) currently has a lamentable 220 km of high-speed rail under construction. That Britain has been so negligent in building vital transport infrastructure in recent history is a damning indictment of the nation that built the London Underground before most European countries had even seen an operational railway.

In efforts to decarbonise transport, someone from Edinburgh should be able to get to Manchester or Birmingham, quickly, reliably, and not be dependent on air travel in doing so.

Britain’s lagging credentials are not reserved for high-speed rail, either. In 2021, the PRC achieved an impressive 70% electrification rate of its rail system. This was an increase from 50% a decade ago. In the European Union, 80% of all rail traffic passes through its main lines, of which 60% are electrified. In the UK, the electrification rate is a dire 38%. Between April 2021 and March 2022, the UK added 2.2 km of electrified track to the network – a result of remodelling at London’s Kings Cross. It cost £1.2 billion just for this 2.2 km. In July 2022, Spain opened 3 new lines of high-speed rail. British efforts, whilst commendable, are being shown-up as woeful compared to the activity of peer nations. 

And it is the UK’s city-regions which suffer from little to no rapid mass transit that connects suburbs to city centres – restricting access to jobs, stifling productivity and harming agglomeration. In France’s Marseille there are nine metro stations for a total of 22.3 km of route. In Leeds, a British peer city, there are zero stations for zero km of route. 

The lack of strategic planning on transport infrastructure has held Britain back for decades. Quite simply, the UK is not building enough, and what is built is strangled by business case appraisals, burdened by consultancy fees, and blocked by an overzealous planning regime. In a time of increased state-based competition and already finite resources, Britain cannot afford to continue sabotaging its own international competitiveness due to its cumbersome domestic bureaucracy and regressive planning system. Indeed, a well-oiled machine at home will better position the UK to secure strategic advantage abroad.

HS2 represents the courage of His Majesty’s Government to finally take on all of that baggage and it is doing so in the national interest, not forgetting that every time it is reviewed the business case reaffirms how good HS2 will be for economic growth across the UK. But without reform to planning or the bureaucracy which underpins the development and appraisal process, HS2 will continue to be condemned as a warning for what is wrong with the broader system. The UK, as a result, will continue to be held back from prosperity at home and greater influence overseas.

Critically, more high-speed rail is needed in Britain. In efforts to decarbonise transport, someone from Edinburgh should be able to get to Manchester or Birmingham, quickly, reliably, and not be dependent on air travel in doing so. High-speed rail to the most populated urban centres, from Liverpool to Leeds for example, is low-hanging fruit in unlocking productivity, but the sheer weight of the bureaucratic burden means it is a journey not worth the government taking. What is needed is to reform first, and then build after.

Ben Brittain is the Matthew Boulton Associate Fellow in Economic Modernisation at the Council on Geostrategy.

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