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HS2 and power games

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The Labour party have been calling for the coalition to ‘get a grip’ on HS2 costs, but the original published costs were probably deliberately underestimated to get the project started and a bandwagon rolling.

HS2 planning was set up in a silo by Andrew Adonis, as Christian Wolmar recounted.

[Christian Wolmar]

[…] There was no proper consultation – High Speed Rail, the document produced in March 2010 was not a Green (this is what we might do but what do you think?) paper but rather a White (this is what we are going to do) one. Therefore, there was no real assessment of the alternatives. The consultants producing the report were asked to ‘consider the options for a new high speed rail network in Britain, starting with a costed and deliverable proposal for a new line from London to Birmingham’. That meant the decision had already been made. Britain must have a high speed line, and it would go from London to Birmingham. End of.

Rather than an assessment of what was needed, we got a document that set out a route with little consideration of the alternatives.

The problem of inflating benefits and decreasing costs to fit an agenda was discussed in Rebecca O’Neill’s ‘Hard Evidence: is it possible to forecast HS2’s benefits?

[Rebecca O’Neill, The Conversation]

Cost performance has not improved over time. The tendency for costs to escalate today is the same as it was ten, 30 or 70 years ago. If our ability to estimate and forecast the costs of infrastructure projects has improved over time, this does not show in the data. In other words, no one seems to have learnt from past experience.

Is this due to the influence of pressure groups, which seem to have some influence over the decision-making process? For example, environmentalists’ desire to safeguard the natural environment demands that roads or railways are buried in expensive tunnels, rather than above ground. The historical period that Flyvbjerg draws his data from goes back long enough to include projects from before pressure groups could wield influence over decision-making and costs. Then, as now, cost estimates were as inaccurate and cost escalation as large.

Costs shrunk or inflated to order

Another explanation is that cost underestimations and escalations are intentional. They are part of power games played by project promoters and consultants aimed at getting projects started. Cost underestimation is used strategically to make projects appear less expensive than they really are in order to gain approval from decision-makers. Such behaviour best explains why cost escalations are so consistent over time, space and project type, as Flyvbjerg and Martin Wachs have described extensively.

In the case of the Adonis project, the costs of alternative investments are inflated to order, to make HS2 look better. Hence the scaremongering and ludicrous claims about ’14 years of weekend disruption’, ‘the need for a new ECML tunnel north of Kings Cross’ (conspicuously absent in the earlier Atkins Rail Packages), ‘not enough rail replacement buses‘, etc.

Written by beleben

November 20, 2013 at 12:34 pm

Posted in High speed rail, HS2

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