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Our Victorian forebears would be ashamed of HS2

NIMBYs have caused enormous amounts of expensive tunnelling. Credit: Getty

October 2, 2023 - 6:30pm

Our Victorian forebears have often been derided by subsequent generations, found guilty of a range of sins from ruthless capitalism and gloomy architecture to imperialism and sexual repression. Whatever you make of such charges, a clear point in their favour is that they got things done.

When the first ironclads revolutionised naval warfare, the Royal Navy ensured that it used the new technology to maintain its untouchable global pre-eminence. Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s sewer system vastly improved Londoners’ health and quality of life. And then of course there were the railways. By the start of the First World War there were around 23,000 miles of line in Britain, mostly laid in the 19th century.

That kind of dynamism has long since faded from British public life, as demonstrated by the continued uncertainty over the fate of HS2. It has now emerged that yet more parts will be scrapped, including — remarkably — the section between Birmingham and Manchester. It has also been suggested that the London terminus will be Old Oak Common in Ealing, rather than Euston. If this turns out to be correct, we will have paid considerably over £100bn for a link between Birmingham and the west London suburbs. The improvements in capacity that HS2 was meant to deliver for the West Coast, East Coast and Midland Main Lines will be much diminished.

Cost overruns have been crippling. Huge amounts have gone on consultations and consultants, environmental impact assessments, and all the other paraphernalia of the modern vetocracy. The need to placate Tory voters in the rural south Midlands has meant enormous amounts of expensive tunnelling — nearly half of the entire London to Birmingham route will be underground.

Almost worse than the disastrous failure to control costs, however, is the lack of vision and managerial competence on show. It’s not simply the decision to give up on the northern branches of HS2, dispiriting as that is. At a very early stage, for example, it was decided not to link HS2 to the existing high-speed line that runs from St Pancras to the Channel Tunnel, meaning that direct trains to the continent from cities other than London would be out of the question for the foreseeable future.

In July this year, the Infrastructure Projects Authority (IPA) reported that the entire scheme might be “unachievable”, noting that many of the problems appeared unmanageable or unresolvable. For over a decade now, successive governments have responded to the increasing difficulties faced by HS2 not by getting a grip on the project — perhaps by bringing in experienced experts from countries that have managed to build high-speed rail — but instead by gradually scaling down the plans, abandoning the original ambitions, and accepting delays.

It now seems quite likely that by the end of this decade, we will have the exact same mileage of operational high-speed line as we did when the 67 miles of HS1 first opened in November 2007, 16 years ago. By way of comparison, France has something like 1,700 miles of high-speed routes, with plans to add more.

The malaise that surrounds HS2 is far from unique when it comes to modern British infrastructure projects. From nuclear power to housebuilding and all points in between, our government and civil service seem paralysed by the scale of the task of national renewal. There are too many choke points, and too few politicians or administrators with the skill and the courage to overcome them.


Niall Gooch is a public sector worker and occasional writer who lives in Kent.

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Jon Barrow
Jon Barrow
9 months ago

I own an old industrial building. In the 1920s they built a 90 ft high stone chimney in 3 weeks, off bedrock, using six builders (who walked from the next village each day) and one engineer/overlooker (put up in the pub), four builders worked on the four chimney faces while two supplied materials, they averaged 5 ft of double skinned stonework a day using stone blocks supplied by a nearby quarry. The only costs were that labour plus materials. Once the decision to build was made, work started promptly. Today money would get sucked up by professional fees and bureaucracies and the planning procedures would take years. I’m not saying there should be little or no oversight, but that the vast majority of costs have been captured by unnecessary professionals and self-perpetuating bureaucracies.

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
9 months ago

By the time HS2 opens the perpetrators will be long dead or in sumptuous retirement. The whole thing is just another wealth extraction operation by the incompetocracy.

David Morley
David Morley
9 months ago

Reads like a throwaway comment – but also reads true. Whether it can be called an operation or not, why oh why, in modern Britain, are so many greedy, dull and useless people allowed to suck up so much of the wealth.

Just as we have talentless people who become famous simply by pursuing fame, we have people who are rewarded financially simply for chasing such rewards – often at the expense of actually doing anything useful, or doing it well!

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
9 months ago

The engineers in a very large contractor have been told in no uncertain terms that they are entering a post-construction world. No, the “degree educated” dullard delivering the corporate net zero “vision” really didn’t see the pun. Net zero means doing less of everything. Building things is no longer a solution, apparently. We need fewer engineers. The future is lots of consultancy and behavioral change to live with what we’ve got.

An education system that churns out mostly non-technical arts graduates is going to fill the commanding heights of the country with non-technical arts graduates. As a result you are going to get fewer engineering projects, more make-work jobs for bureaucrats in engineering projects (looking at you, HS2) , and more intangible “solutions” that focus on disguising a problem or changing your perception of a problem but leave the problem entirely unchanged because no one no longer knows how to solve problems.

Even engineering degrees are having engineering content squeezed out of them. Apparently we can’t have one dimensional engineers so they need educating in anything but engineering. Yet somehow spending 3 years doing a BA and being hopelessly inumerate is like totally OK yah.

The UK has reached the point where it no longer values engineers. It no longer understands the value engineers have created, and can’t see the value they can create. Engineering is dirty and the engineers need constraining. Luckily there is now an inverted pyramid of non-enginering managers to stymie engineering and engineers.

I will leave you with this: more than 80% of life expectency improvement since the 1700s has come from infrastructure and systems created by engineering. Water, energy, transport, distribution, and automation. Fed by engineering, watered by engineering, with engineered machines now doing most of the work. Yet British people when questioned in a 2022 survey didn’t mention engineering in the top 10 most important (useful to society) professions. This was in stark contrast to an identical survey in the USA, Nigeria, and South Korea, which all placed engineering in the top three. The large cracks in HS2 are cultural and endemic in the UK today, and we in the UK stand on the brink of even greater failures in the next decades.

Last edited 9 months ago by Nell Clover
Charlie Dibsdale
Charlie Dibsdale
9 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

To be fair engineering has always been looked down on in the past. Lawyers, doctors and academia were always a superior breed

Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
9 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Net zero is not degrowth. Net zero actually means building a lot of new technology and new infrastructure.

David McKee
David McKee
9 months ago

The reason the Victorians got things done is that they knew when to be ruthless. The word ‘railroaded’ comes from America, but we had it here as well.

Why did nearly every Victorian railway have an inner city terminus? It was only because its developers could raze every home that stood in the way of the connecting track.

Not very nice, but it worked.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
9 months ago
Reply to  David McKee

Good point. At least the developments actually took place. I was heartbroken to learn that I’ll ne’er again enjoy a quick scoop in the Bree Louise before boarding at Euston.

Harry Child
Harry Child
9 months ago

The Victorians did not face the avalanche of legislation that faces any major development taking place in our overcrowded island as David outlines below. Take in tree huggers, bat lovers, nimbys, don’t spoil my view fanatics and add in Health & Safety, COSH and Human rights regulations, it is no wonder it is difficult to get projects though on time and on cost.

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
9 months ago

Victorians may have been bemused by the expenditure of £100bn on a rail link between the west London suburbs and Birmingham. They would at least have understood the value of investment in rail infrastructure. They would, though, have been positively bewildered by the £407bn (IMF estimate) spent on shutting down our economy, terrorising our population, distorting our media, harming our children’s education, despoiling our environment with countless millions of useless disposable surgical face masks, denying the dying humane end of life care, destroying small businesses. further entrenching the power of Big Pharma & Big Tech, and leaving hundreds of thousands on long term sick.

We need to face up to what we did to ourselves. If we don’t things will get a lot worse before they get better. The HS2 debacle is a straw in the wind.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
9 months ago

Just add it to the list of things for which our Victorian forebears would be ashamed of us.

Dominic A
Dominic A
9 months ago

I wonder how long a list of things you’d be ashamed of the Victorians for, would be?

Thomas Wagner
Thomas Wagner
9 months ago
Reply to  Dominic A

The only way to avoid doing wrong is to do nothing — a skill which many modern civilizations have nearly perfected.

Dominic A
Dominic A
9 months ago
Reply to  Thomas Wagner

That sounds wrong too!

Mark Goodhand
Mark Goodhand
9 months ago

The French have shown that state run infrastructure projects can work, but it’s worth noting that the great days of British railway expansion came before nationalisation.

Lucas
Lucas
9 months ago

I have family in South Shields. When I go there, I am struck at how this small town, that is now a byword for under investment has this stunning Victorian town hall.

It make me think of how the Saxons would walk this land and be amazed at the Roman ruins, thinking them built by giants. Are we the same now? Wandering a land built by victorians, unable to comprehend how they got things done

Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
9 months ago
Reply to  Lucas

Or look at wells cathedral. Built in the first half of the 13th century for a town that’s only 12,000 strong today.

odd taff
odd taff
9 months ago

The Victorian built quickly and with tremendous verve and style but they didn’t always build wisely. Many of their projects were commercial failures. New railways often didn’t attract enough revenue to cover their running costs and were closed fairly soon after completion. We are inclined to view our Victorian legacy with awe not realising that we are looking at the survivors of a fairly untidy process.

Andrew Wise
Andrew Wise
9 months ago
Reply to  odd taff

Absolutely
 and most were private companies not government behemoths.

Chris Hume
Chris Hume
9 months ago
Reply to  odd taff

That’s true, but in order to build great things you have to take risks. An untidy system that sometimes produces failures is far superior to one where building one railway line becomes a gigantic, expensive decades-long wrangle.
It would be interesting to see precisely to whom that ÂŁ100bn has gone, and I doubt it’ll be rail engineers.

John Galt Was Correct
John Galt Was Correct
9 months ago

I find it an unfortunate reality of life that being British means being embarrassed about it.

Adam Bacon
Adam Bacon
9 months ago

What did the Victorians/Romans ever do for us? (recalling The Life of Brian).

Perhaps Boris de Pfeffel Johnson’s greatest moment of idiocy, more than promoting Green ideology, was to regret this country’s greatest ever achievement (possibly humanity’s greatest ever achievement), the Industrial Revolution.. Brutal and unequal as it was in the Victorian era, it has improved the lot of humankind immeasurably.

And, personally speaking, although we’re rather shambolic nowadays, I’m still happy I’m British. We’ve latterly provided the world with, arguably, the best music and comedy ( until the PC/woke takeover).

Last edited 9 months ago by Adam Bacon
Jon Barrow
Jon Barrow
9 months ago
Reply to  Adam Bacon

Yes the modern fashion is to bash our ancestors, especially the ones who provided the potable water/healthcare/food surplus/leisure time/education/stable legal system/etc. that make daft ‘luxury beliefs’ possible. It’s worth remembering that the normal condition of human existence was ‘brutal’ (in modern terms) BEFORE the Victorian era.

David Morley
David Morley
9 months ago
Reply to  Adam Bacon

Clearly we are still providing the world with the best comedy. We’re bringing the house down on the continent.

David Morley
David Morley
9 months ago

Sadly true. HS2 is only visible because it’s so high profile. But I’m afraid this kind of uselessness is everywhere.

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
9 months ago

Many of the novel horrors do stem from our 40 year experiment as a province under EU law. Our dynamism stemmed from our common law, which did not – like the Codified Napoleonic system – blanket and suffocate economic and social activity under millions of Regulations, fed in by a Quangocracy. Though it was never even raised in the Brexit debate, it is the freedom to restore common law – a jewel in our culture – that promises us the greatest value. The Vetocracy still rules – Rwanda, HS2, everything

Peter Kwasi-Modo
Peter Kwasi-Modo
9 months ago

Comparisons with France must be taken with a pinch of salt. France has a population density of 118 people per square kilometer, whereas England has a population density of 434 people per square kilometer. Similarly, even in 19th century England, the population density was 111 per square kilometer, i.e. lower than present day France. England is so much more crowded that any infrastructure project is bound to create more difficulties.
Early infrastructure projects, whether the first railways or the canals, had a huge impact on economic activity and the population’s way of life. Incremental infrastructure projects such as HS2 make some commutes more convenient, but not even consultancies would have the brass neck to pretend that HS2 is going to have a transformational impact.

Gordon Hughes
Gordon Hughes
9 months ago

Even these figures understate the problem. If you were to divide England into predominantly rural and non-rural areas (parishes or wards) the population density today in rural areas is probably little higher than in 1850 (and may be lower). Almost all of the four-fold population growth has occurred in the non-rural areas, where the increase in average population density is much more than 4 times. That is where all of the problems in building new infrastructure arise.
There is a related problem. For more than 70 years the state has asserted the right to control land development. At the same time it is absurdly parsimonious in compensating those who lose from such development on grounds of saving public money. So there is every incentive for losers to use every tactic to slow or block development. Virtue-signalling legislation gives lots of grounds for such challenges, so governments are easily tied up in knots.
Generous compensation would pay for itself provided that it is subject to strict timetables. Paying it would force governments to decide early whether they were or were not willing to finance projects.
Finally, a system of true accountability is required – extending to civil servants and consultants – for projects that aren’t completed on time & budget (allowing, say, a 25% leeway) or don’t deliver on what is promised. The point about Victorian developers is that their personal assets were at risk if things went wrong – and many of them went bankrupt.

Last edited 9 months ago by Gordon Hughes
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
9 months ago

The State lacks the expertise to carry out infrastructural projects of this nature, as it simply doesn’t pay comparable wages to the private sector for similar roles. Having worked for both during my working life, the pay on offer in most public sector roles would be around a third less than what could be earned working for private companies, therefore everybody who could jumped ship at the earliest opportunity. Therefore the only people left were youngsters with little experience and old boys just whittling down the days until retirement.
I’ve often thought this approach was penny wise but pound foolish, because anything saved in wages was invariably lost many times over when projects started to overrun. If we’re serious about building infrastructure then we need to pay the going rate for people with the skills to build it, gutting the public sector and then relying on consultants (who charge the earth) is a fools errand.
I will add however that I’ve spent my entire career in commercial construction, and I’m yet to work on a large project for the private sector that’s come in on time and under budget so it’s not just a public sector issue

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
9 months ago

Vetocracy. Great word.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
9 months ago

Watch Adam Curtis’ Traumazone about the fall of the Soviet Uniion and Russia 1985-1999.

That about tells us where we’re at.

Saigon Sally
Saigon Sally
9 months ago

I was wondering whether the author was a relation of the most excellent Daniel Gooch, Superintendant for Locomotive Engines and responsible for setting up the superb Swindon engineering works for the Great Western Railway. I had rather hoped so and that this fuelled the author’s just indignation at the collapse of railway excellence in this country.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
9 months ago

Before they started building things, our Victorian ancestors worked out if they would make a profit. They were not always right of course, but usually they were. And if they were wrong they were losing their own or their shareholders money, not charging their recklessness to the tax payer.
They would have been very sceptical about building a railway which was to serve a destination served by three other lines (Paddington, Marylebone, and Euston), two of which had plenty of spare capacity, and the third of which just needed longer trains.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
9 months ago

Without in any way detracting from the justified criticism of how HS2 has been managed, the article does take a rather rose tinted view of Victorian railway building. Many projects never got built, losing all their shareholders’ money, and many that did get built were commercial failures, losing all their shareholders’ money.
Also, terminating at Old Oak Common is actually a good thing (unless your final destination is within walking distance of Euston). It will be well connected, including to the Elizabeth Line, with a direct line to Heathrow. The Northern Line at Euston would struggle to cope, frankly.

Carmel Shortall
Carmel Shortall
9 months ago

Ah HS2! The grift that keeps on giving…

Graham Bennett
Graham Bennett
9 months ago

As a historian of Victorian Britain, I can confirm that the Bazalgette’s and Brunel’s of the period really would be turning in their graves over this HS2 nonsense. Even the kinds of things the Victorians could have built in a week, such as the Edinburgh tram system, still takes modern ‘engineers’ and construction companies 100 times as long, at 1000 times the cost! Then again, the great Victorian visionaries did not have to contend with such rubbish as EDI compliance, which I think would even have defeated them. They simply would have given up in exasperation! As a report in the Spectator recently pointed out, HS2 may have failed on just about every count, but apparently its huge EDI report, and the massive number of consultants it took to produce, at incredible cost, was completed fully and on time. Britain has definitely lost its spirit and sense of direction. It’s a shadow of what it once was. A shame.

Jonathan Story
Jonathan Story
9 months ago

What are the reasons for the cost overrun? Surely that is not an impossible question to answer. Armed with that knowledge, the project can then be terminated.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
9 months ago
Reply to  Jonathan Story

They are wide and many but if not too far out of your way go to the Chiltern Hills north of Princes Risborough. This is where the main tunnel passes, but the construction team seem to have hit on an interesting technique. Remove most of the Chilterns, build the railway line, cover it over with concrete segments, and put the Chilterns back on top.

Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
9 months ago

HS2: a 19th Century answer to 21st Century problems.