I was once called upon to drop everything and go have a look at someone else's scheme. It was essentially an engineering job, with a fair bit sub-surface, and the Balfour Beatty subsidiary who were the main contractor had already spent well into double figure millions, were a year late and only half-done. They were asking the client to double the budget. Well, reader, it was a pickle. They'd jammed the job to a standstill. Just one example - painting. It was a minor part of the job. They were painting steel and had already spent £0.75m putting the first coat on an area the size of a B&Q store roof. It had taken 10 weeks so far. They were using a specially formulated water-soluble steel paint to avoid hazardous fumes to other workers in the sub-surface part, only because of the damp atmosphere it cured at the speed of treacle. So they had a pair of mechanical engineers at £3k a week the pair to monitor paint curing.
Well they knew they'd screwed up and went into construction industry defence mode - assume that everything you say, write, instruct or report will eventually be used as evidence in the Construction Court. So the monthly progress reports were bound volumes of 200 pages, the Gant charts cramming so many activities onto each A3 sheet that you'd need a scanning electron microscope to read the text and the project team meetings attended by about 30 had to be held in the canteen - the largest space on site.
And it really wasn't their fault. They lacked any form of cogent leadership, and in the circumstances did what headless, directionless professionals will always do - retreated into rigid professionalism and risk-aversity. Well, I advised the client that it was a Gordian Knot. Further time extensions and budget increases wouldn't clear it, and the main contractor knew it. He had to pull the plug. He did, of course - but there was a sting in the tail. If I was so bloody clever, I could finish it. I did. The painting? My newly-appointed tame lead engineer and CDM supervisor were both sympathetic to my suggestion, and we closed the site to all other trades for 48hrs whilst a paint team used the solvent-based 'Jotun' paint used on North Sea oil rigs and finished it off. Cost £20k. And not a penny spent on mechanical engineers watching it dry.
I bore you all with that anecdote to underline the point that the HS2 scheme seems to smell awfully familiar to the job above and a few other failures I have seen. For a start, it's too big. Too big to be managed as a single scheme. Then it's irrelevant; the route it improves is not London to Birmingham but Brussels to Birmingham, and is part of the Ten-T spoke-and-hub transport corridor scheme devised to connect the subject nations of the EU. Finally, it adds nothing extra to GDP apart from the construction costs. Even Keynesians at least aim to get £1.50 of economic benefit for every £1 spent.
So scrap the London to Birmingham route in favour of track, signalling and crossing improvements and minor realignments of existing tracks. Split the balance of the Northern interconnects into coherent smaller packages and let them manage themselves. Look at modal swaps; do we really need steel wheels right into city centres, or can we have rail interchanges further out and rubber wheels and light rail in the centres. More trams, everywhere - they're one of Europe's delights and I love them.
Allister Heath sums it up in the Telegraph; there's more at stake than just taxpayers' money
This is a key test of Johnson’s determination: does he really want to help the rest of the country, or is it just PR? If the former, as we all hope and believe, he should replace HS2 with a whole list of new infrastructure projects focused on the North and Midlands, including roads and rail connections between cities, and cancel the London to Birmingham link. If he bottles it, the message will be grim: the Blob will have won a psychological victory, and its appetite for Tory flesh will have been whetted.