Boris Johnson Backs HS2, U.K.’s $130 Billion Railroad Plan

Boris Johnson Backs HS2, U.K.’s $130 Billion Railroad Plan

LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain on Tuesday pushed ahead with a multidecade high-speed rail project that is now expected to cost more than $130 billion, underscoring his commitment to government intervention in rust-belt areas of the middle and north of England that helped elect him.

Delays and spiraling costs had set off a fierce discussion about whether the proposed railroad, called High Speed 2, was a vital investment in Britain’s creaking transport infrastructure or a financially ruinous white elephant. Significant parts of Mr. Johnson’s Conservative Party and several of his closest advisers are passionately opposed to the plan.

But since winning a big parliamentary majority in elections in December, Mr. Johnson has tried to cast himself as a unifying figure who wants to invest in a high-technology economy, spread prosperity outside the south of England, and bring the country together after Brexit.

The line would first link London with Birmingham, the biggest city in the English Midlands, by some time around 2030, before splitting into two northward routes in a second phase scheduled to be completed by 2040.

Given that Mr. Johnson’s election victory was in part thanks to the defection of many northern districts from the opposition Labour Party, the rail project would have been hard to cut, particularly given the costs already sunk in the project, which started preparatory work eight years ago.

“I don’t think it’s ideological — I think it’s about presenting Boris Johnson and his government as ‘can do’, rather than ‘can’t do,’ in contrast to that of his predecessor,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London.

Analysts have struggled to define Mr. Johnson politically, though he claims to be a centrist, “one-nation” Conservative, a term that dates from 19th-century efforts to narrow inequalities. Even if that is unclear, his decision on High Speed 2 suggests that Mr. Johnson wants to use the power of government to stimulate growth, rather than to deregulate and to refashion Britain as a free-market nirvana, as some critics have suggested.

“It does signal the idea of government as an enabling state rather than nightwatchman state — or of a government that wants to keep the state out of the economy at all costs,” Professor Bale said.

Speaking in Parliament on Tuesday, Mr. Johnson acknowledged that the project had been troubled by poor management and promised to appoint a minister to oversee it. “We have to have the guts and foresight to drive it through,” he added, noting that most big infrastructure plans provoke opposition.

Mr. Johnson also announced on Tuesday support for smaller-scale travel projects in northern England, including additional funds for buses and an upgrade to a rail link between the cities of Manchester and Leeds. Critics of High Speed 2 have frequently declared that its budget should instead be spent on ideas like those.

There are many such critics in Mr. Johnson’s camp. Some are lawmakers concerned about disruption and damage to countryside in their districts — the first phase of the route rips without stopping through traditional Conservative heartlands in southern England. Others — including the prime minister’s most prominent aide, Dominic Cummings — consider it unacceptable value for money.

Once expected to cost around 33 billion pounds — roughly $40 billion — the plan is now estimated at £106 billion. The schedule has slipped, too: The Birmingham phase was originally supposed to be finished by 2026, with cities further north connected by 2033.

The opposition Labour Party attacked the government’s record. “HS2 has been appallingly mismanaged by the Conservative Party, which has failed to deliver a single major infrastructure project on time or within budget,” said Andy McDonald, who speaks for Labour on transport issues.

Supporters say the project’s difficulties reflect the scale of its ambition. Trains would travel at speeds up to 224 miles per hour, faster than any other train service in Europe, and the railroad would accommodate as many as 18 services per hour.

They argue that the new railroad is necessary to ease congestion on the 19th-century core of Britain’s rail network, allowing for more local services on lines currently shared with long-distance expresses.

And, if a new route is being constructed, the argument goes, it makes sense to do so to high specifications. (As the name suggests, it would be Britain’s second modern high-speed railroad, after the link from London to the Channel Tunnel.)

Leading politicians in the North and Midlands had lobbied for High Speed 2, and Mr. Johnson has been eager to demonstrate his commitment to those regions.

On the day Britain formally left the European Union, Mr. Johnson held a cabinet meeting in Sunderland, the city in northeastern England that declared first for Brexit during the 2016 referendum. Mr. Johnson’s aides have even briefed some newspapers that the government is thinking of moving the House of Lords, Parliament’s unelected and less powerful upper chamber, to the northern city of York, though few take that prospect seriously.

Mr. Johnson has long shown a fondness for big construction projects. Downing Street said on Monday that government officials were studying the viability of a bridge to link Scotland and Northern Ireland, an idea Mr. Johnson has mentioned publicly but one that many engineers have dismissed as impractical or uneconomical.

While mayor of London Mr. Johnson pushed through projects including a fleet of custom buses and a cross-river cable car. But he also promoted the idea of constructing an airport for London in the southern estuary of the River Thames — a project nicknamed “Boris Island” — and of a pedestrian bridge across the Thames in central London that would double as a park. Neither went ahead despite millions being spent.

Professor Bale predicted that Mr. Johnson’s idea of linking Scotland and Northern Ireland would ultimately go the same way, despite the prime minister’s enthusiasm.

At one point, as foreign secretary during the Brexit negotiations, Mr. Johnson suggested building a 20-mile bridge from Britain to France.

“He has never seen a bridge he didn’t like,” Professor Bale added.


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