'My constituents will see no benefit': South Northants MP voices residents' concerns over cost and viability of HS2

South Northamptonshire residents will get none of the benefits associated with a high-speed railway linking London to Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester.
Andrea Leadsom has sent several letters to HS2 Ltd CEO Mark ThurstonAndrea Leadsom has sent several letters to HS2 Ltd CEO Mark Thurston
Andrea Leadsom has sent several letters to HS2 Ltd CEO Mark Thurston

HS2 will race through the countryside and won’t stop in Northamptonshire, meaning residents can’t simply hop on and whizz off to the north of England.

Disruptions to travel as a result of the construction of the railway line are a source of worry too as there are concerns over diversions and roadblocks on routes to and from Brackley and Banbury will affect day-to-day movements of residents and emergency services vehicles.

Unable to profit from the expensive venture, the least South Northamptonshire residents might expect is value for the taxpayers’ money and guarantees HS2 will be the project agreed on when MPs voted in favour of the High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) Act 2017.

Rising costs, the lowering of train speeds and a reduction of service are new concerns voiced by South Northamptonshire residents to their MP Andrea Leadsom.

Earlier this year, the former chairman of the project, Sir Terry Morgan, spoke at a Lords Economic Affairs Committee during which he said “nobody knows what the number is” when asked about the final cost of HS2.

When HS2 was first given the green light in 2012, the Government said they expected it to cost £32.7bn. But that figure has now shot up to £55.7bn.

To keep it on budget, some fundamental changes to the project have been suggested.

These include slowing down the trains by 50kph, reducing the number of trains per hour from 18 to 14 and changing the slab track to a ballast track.

“Given that the business case for HS2 was first predicated upon speed, then on capacity, then finally on improving the connectivity to the north, can I ask how these changes – separately and cumulatively – would impact on the viability of the project?” asked Mrs Leadsom in a letter to HS2 CEO Mark Thurston in November 2018.

In a more recent letter to Mr Thurston in the wake of the economic affairs committee, Mrs Leadsom said residents were in ‘absolute dismay’ at what Sir Terry had said and were ‘incredulous’ at the fact he didn’t know the final cost.

She highlights a report by Professor Woodward of Heriot-Watt University, whose work was quoted in a House of Lords HS2 select committee.

Professor Woodward claims it may not be feasible to routinely run trains at 360kph on ballasted track as it could cause degradation to the ballast and supports, which could lead to a noisier, rougher track that reduces its stability.

To counter this, it was suggested to slow the trains down (a cost-effective measure) or inject concrete into the ground - potentially adding billions of pounds in cost.

“Research from Heriot-Watt University concluded that, to mitigate the impact of ballast track, the safe maximum speed along much of the line of route may be as low as 252kph,” reads Mrs Leadsom letter to Mr Thurston in January 2019.

“If HS2 Ltd does have to reduce the maximum speed to account for the risks of derailment and catastrophic track failure, then the business case and benefit-cost ratio would be substantially damaged.”

The letter continues: “I know that you will join with my constituents in agreeing that the business case for HS2 must be maintained, and that value for money for taxpayers is a key concern, particularly given the collapse of the business case for HS1 under the last Labour government.

“You will appreciate why my constituents – who are directly affected by the construction and operation of HS2 but will see no benefit – are increasingly concerned that the business case is being undermined from all angles, and the basis for which Parliament gave its support to the project may no longer exist.”