Full Speed Ahead: HS2 signs £2bn manufacturing deal

December 18, 2021

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3 min read

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What's going on here?

High Speed 2 (HS2), the planned railway line set to run between London Euston and cities in the Midlands and northern England, has signed a manufacturing contract worth £2bn for 54 trains by Hitachi and Alstom.

What does this mean?

The trains will be similar to the bullet trains used widely in Japan, and will be able to reach peak speeds of approximately 225mph. Hitachi will perform the first portion of the manufacturing process from its County Durham rail factory, which will include assembly and initial fit-out. Alstom will finish off the second stage of the fit-out and conduct testing. The first trains are expected to be complete around 2027, and the first passengers anticipated between 2029 and 2033.

The new trains will be able to use existing rail infrastructure as well as the dedicated HS2 network, and current journey times will be significantly reduced. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has hailed the project as a revolution in the British rail system, with the new system hoped to ease some of the pressure on existing transport networks, minimise carbon emissions in the move towards the UK’s goal of net zero carbon status, and significantly improve connectivity between London and the Midlands and North.

What's the big picture effect?

There is no doubt that HS2’s promises relating to capacity, carbon and connectivity should help to improve the UK economy in a more balanced fashion. The network will certainly improve leisure and employment opportunities on a national level. However, the HS2 project has been saddled with criticism since its inception, with the “Stop HS2” campaign complaining that the project has “No business case. No environmental case. No money to pay for it.” The group represents a large number of people apprehensive about the alleged benefits HS2 claims to bring to the national economy. Initial cost estimates placed the project at around £56bn, but this number has steadily grown and some now place the cost at over £100bn.

HS2 is also set to have a significant impact on the environment and homes. In some places, the government has been buying properties to demolish and make way for construction, and the Woodland Trust has claimed that several ancient woodlands and designated nature reserves are threatened by the project. These critiques are only the half of it – the £2bn manufacturing contract is also sure to feature in the legal challenge brought by Siemens, a rival manufacturer who was shortlisted in HS2’s procurement process. Siemens originally sought an injunction to halt the award of the contract to Hitachi and Alstom, but has since scrapped this part of its claim, though is still pursuing its claim for damages.

We would not typically think of areas in the Midlands as “commuter towns” for London, so it might be presumed that the high speed will not be predominantly used for daily commutes. However, the drastically reduced travel times may now mean that commuting from previously too distant locations could actually become a possibility. However, this upside may have somewhat diminished in relevance since companies and their employees were forced into work-from-home arrangements during the pandemic. Even as the rules eased, many employers announced that their flexible working arrangements would continue for the foreseeable, regardless of the status of Covid-related restrictions. So, the sharp reduction in the use of rail networks for commuting could prove to be yet another spanner in the works for HS2.

The government will no doubt be hoping that this considerable step forward in the overall progress of HS2 will quiet some of the criticisms levelled against it as regards timing. For critics that hoped to have the project quashed, an investment of this magnitude sets out the position clearly: the government wants to place Britain at the forefront of high speed rail developments, and anger over its supposedly watered down plans or environmental ramifications have been of limited impact.

Report written by Laura Wiles

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