HS2 minister, Andrew Stephenson, has said he is convinced of the strategic case for the £108bn high speed rail line despite the impacts of COVID-19 and the expectation of a new normal in how people live and work.
Mr Stephenson said that previous outbreaks of disease around the world had also impacted travel habits in the short term, but the long term trend towards urbanisation would ensure that the case for mass transport into cities would hold up.
‘Even if you look at parts of the world that were very adversely affected by HIV/AIDS, the Zika virus or the SARS outbreak, there was a very significant short-term impact in demand for things such as rail travel, but then that desire of people still to live in the big cities returned in those countries,’ he said.
‘I think that in the UK, the move of the population to cities and the urbanisation of the country will continue, and therefore a scheme to link up the major population centres of the country will still hold good sway in the long term. Therefore, the strategic case for HS2 very much still holds sway. I am convinced by that.’
However, he admitted to the transport select committee that the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on travel habits would be something the Government will look into.
‘I am very keen to ensure that we particularly reflect on what demand is likely to be in the light of COVID-19. There have been some fluctuations in different parts of the country, but if you look at the West Coast Main Line, for 25 years now we have seen almost 5% growth year on year. Even though there is going to be significant short-term impact of COVID-19, the jury is still out on what the long-term impact will be on demand in the UK.’
The cost we have set on the project now is £72bn to £98bn. The £108 billion that is included in the full business case is the whole-life cost of the project; Clive may want to say more about that. We are expecting to deliver this project for between £72 billion and £98bn.
Phase one of the project from London to Birmingham is now expected to open in 2030, although it is not clear what impact the national lockdown will have had on this timetable.
HS2 Ltd chief executive, Mark Thurston, said he did not know what the impact would be but revealed that following a review of its operations, 35% of HS2 work sites had been closed due to the virus, with this being subsequently reduced to 25%.
‘None of us knows quite where COVID-19 will play out. It is too early for us to understand what the full impact will be, but in the fullness of time, that is surely something we will do. About 75% of our sites are open. That has increased from about 65% a couple of weeks ago; we have been opening up a few more sites where we can be confident that we can comply with the guidelines.’
Mr Thurston revealed that contractors have had a problem with protestors on their sites and had called security officers and the police on occasion.
‘We have had quite a lot of issues protestors. We have had to involve our security. We have seen action by protestors that is anything but complying with the social distancing guidelines that the Government have advised and that has put our operatives at risk. We have had to engage security organisations to protect our sites and protect our operatives. In a number of instances, the police have even been called, which frankly is not a great use of the police at this time.’
MPs on the committee also complained to Mr Thurston about the ‘appalling’ and ‘horrendous’ treatment some communities had received from HS2 Ltd. He was invited to pledge to step down within six months if this situation had not improved, which declined to do.
He said: ‘It is a mixed picture. This is a constant challenge for us. We have made some very bold and clear commitments to be respectful of those communities impacted by our work.
'We now have over 100 community engagement officers all along the route, working very closely with local communities and local constituency offices. We are listening to what communities need and we have changed. We know on some days that it is not as good as it should be. My commitment and our commitment is to get that right.’
Mr Thurston is the highest paid person on the civil service payroll, with a salary in excess of £600,000, only 10% of which is performance-measured.