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Infrastructure blog

Has Covid-19 changed the need for High Speed 2?

04 September 2020

Construction of the High Speed 2 railway has begun. But, with changes to society brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, ICE Policy Director Chris Richards explores whether this project is still fit for purpose?

Has Covid-19 changed the need for High Speed 2?
HS2. Image credit: Shutterstock

The big news of the day is that High Speed 2, a railway we've been talking about for the best part of a decade, will finally start construction. But with all the recent changes, to society, our personal and work lives, many will be wondering - do we still need it?

Whether there is a remaining need for HS2 was a question we asked as part of our Covid-19 Green Paper. If changing patterns of work mean less people commuting, then we'll need to review our major projects. HS2 will take the best part of another decade to come to fruition. Projects of this scale and complexity are best viewed through the lens of long-term need not short-term investment cycles.

Our subsequent Covid-19 White Paper underscored this need. Covid-19 does not change the long-term drivers for infrastructure development - the population will continue to grow, the need to rapidly decarbonise transport system will remain, as will the need to address regional inequalities across Britain.

Population growth will put pressure on our transport network, which was already at capacity during peak hours. 26% of morning peak trains arriving to London were over capacity in 2014, with a total of 139,000 standing passengers (22% of all passengers).

Since then, capacity constraints have continued with the share of standing passengers across all rail journeys in the morning peak increasing from 16% in 2010 to 20% in 2018. Notably since 2010 it is areas outside London, such as Birmingham, that has seen the largest increases in the proportion of passengers standing in the morning peak.

Additionally, in 2013 the transport sector accounted for 20.5% of carbon emissions, by 2018 this had grown to 33% of all carbon emissions, with the majority of this coming from road transport.

As our recent paper on the policy options for achieving net-zero highlighted, shifting passengers from cars to other forms of sustainable travel will be a key component of our ability as a nation to achieve the 2050 net-zero target. In the latest year for which data is available (2017/18), carbon emissions (per passenger km) travelled on rail declined 10.3% year on year, showing that rail is continuing to make strides towards greater decarbonising as well.

Which is basically:

In short, no, Covid-19 does not change the need for High Speed 2.

What needs to happen next on HS2?

The HS2 formal go ahead comes at a unique time, as all eyes are trained on how we can do infrastructure better. New public sector outsourcing guidance is being developed for the construction sector, Project Speed and the Department for Transport Acceleration Unit are all looking at how to improve delivery.

Our Covid-19 White Paper, which feeds into the Construction Leadership Council's plans to drive a reinvention in infrastructure delivery, highlighted the need to shift our attempts to improve how we deliver infrastructure from tactical approaches on a work package by work package basis, to strategic change at a programme and systems level. This approach can be readily applied to HS2 including ensuring the project bakes in the creation of a digital twin and that there is a shift towards leadership based on a systems-integration skillset.

HS2 should also be seen within the context of the wider system. Greater clarity on how HS2 will provide a strategic underpinning to unlock further benefits in the North (through Northern Powerhouse Rail) and the Midlands (through the Midlands Rail Hub) is underway by the National Infrastructure Commission. An ambition for onward connectivity to Scotland and the South-West should also be outlined, if a need is established in future assessments.

Learning lessons for future infrastructure planning and prioritisation

HS2 didn't need to take a decade to get to this stage. The five different government's we've had, since its formal conception in 2009, have all sought to review the project (sometimes even twice).

This is because what the project was for, didn't emerge through strategic planning at the infrastructure system level, but was something that emerged from a siloed approach to infrastructure planning and prioritisation.

While politicians will rightly want to have the final say on a projects go-ahead, the need for a project, particularly if developed by independent and expert commissions such as the National Infrastructure Commission, isn't something that will frequently change no matter how many times you ask the question.

A depoliticised, long-term and thorough needs assessment is a central plank of global good practice on infrastructure planning and prioritisation as identified by our Enabling Better Infrastructure programme:

  • The best national strategic infrastructure planning systems embrace three stages: (i) they establish a vision, (ii) conduct a needs assessment and (iii) use that to build a national strategy.

HS2's conception predates the establishment of the UK's National Infrastructure Commission and therefore didn't have the advantage of emerging from a national needs assessment. This will (and should) no longer be the case for future projects of this scale.

The UK now has a national needs assessment. All eyes are on the autumn for a National Infrastructure Strategy worthy of the name. Read more about why a Strategy is important in a blog post from earlier this year.

  • Chris Richards, director of policy at Institution of Civil Engineers