9:55PM GMT 14 Dec 2013
A suppressed Cabinet Office report into the HS2 rail scheme raised “major concerns” about its “risky” construction timetable, poor management, insufficient work on costs and the capability of the people involved, The Telegraph can disclose.
Ministers are fighting to stop full publication of the report, seeking a rare emergency prime ministerial veto to prevent its disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.
As of earlier this year, the veto
— described as a “constitutional aberration” by the Lord Chief Justice — had
only been used six times, including to block the release of the Attorney
General’s legal advice on the
The disclosure of the report
comes as new evidence about rail use further undermines the case for HS2.
Ministers insist the high-speed line between
The suppressed November 2011 report, by the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority, was one in a series of six-monthly “project assessment reviews” conducted into HS2 and 190 other major government spending projects.
In the previous report, in June 2011, HS2 was graded as “amber”. The November report raised the project’s alert status to “amber-red”, meaning that its success was assessed as “in doubt”. The assessors said they had low “delivery confidence” in HS2, according to sources familiar with the report, and identified four core weaknesses in it.
One of their concerns was the “risky” timetable, with shorter periods for planning, construction and passing the necessary legislation through Parliament than was given to much smaller rail projects.
HS1, the existing high-speed line
Crossrail, the new full-sized
underground line beneath central
However, HS2’s phase 1, from London to Birmingham, only has 17 months for the same hybrid Bill process — even though the line would be twice as long as High Speed 1, 10 times longer than Crossrail and have more tunnelling than either.
HS2 is also far more controversial than HS1 and Crossrail and is likely to attract significant opposition in the parliamentary process.
The passage of a hybrid Bill is much more arduous than normal legislation, involving extensive oral cross-examination and allowing anyone affected to testify personally to Parliament. If parliamentary approval is secured, HS2 is also supposed to be built in the same time as Crossrail and HS1 — around eight to nine years — even though it is a substantially bigger and more complicated project.
Management and governance at both HS2 Limited, the state-owned company delivering the new line, and the Department for Transport, the project sponsor, were strongly criticised in the report. There was a lack of co-ordination between the two bodies, the assessment found, and confused responsibilities delayed the timetable for several key contracts.
The management tools for delivery were undeveloped and unsophisticated, without the use of even a “critical path” method — a standard technique for delivering projects that has been used since the Sixties to determine the order in which tasks should be completed.
There were “concerns over skills, capability and resources”, with not enough people working on the project and many of those that were not deemed capable or skilled enough. HS2 Limited’s own most recent annual report admitted: “It has been a challenge for the company to develop and enhance its governance, risk management and internal controls process to ensure that their maturity matches the underlying requirements of the organisation.”
HS2 also admitted that “one area where controls need strengthening and clarifying is the governance arrangements between the HS2 Limited board and the wider high-speed rail programme”.
The report also foreshadowed the project’s major difficulties in keeping control over its budget, saying not enough work had been done to bottom out the project’s true costs and affordability. Since the report was written, HS2’s overall budget has risen by about a third, from £32 billion to £43 billion at 2011 prices.
The document was cleared for release by the Information Commissioner in June, but the Government was due to lodge an appeal to the Information Tribunal last Thursday. That hearing was adjourned at the last minute after Patrick McLoughlin, the Transport Secretary, and Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, wrote to Mr Cameron warning that the Government was “very likely to lose” and it would be “better to veto now than after an adverse tribunal decision”.
Justifying the “exceptional” use of the veto, the ministers said the publication of the report would create “political and presentational difficulties at a crucial point in the HS2 project’s development”.
In anticipation of the veto, the Government has now tried to withdraw its appeal, but the tribunal judge has said that there are outstanding legal issues and it needs his permission to do so, according to one source close to the case.
Subsequent reports by the Major Projects Authority (MPA), in 2012 and this year, kept HS2 in “amber-red” status, with little done to tackle the management problems identified previously. As late as last autumn, the Department for Transport’s internal auditors raised concerns about governance and resources on the project, and even this year the Government had “not fully implemented the recommendations they made,” according to the National Audit Office, which accused the department of being “slow” to respond to the issues raised by the reports. The latest MPA report is understood to have reduced the HS2 alert to “amber”, which means that its success is seen as “feasible” but not probable. Improvements have been made to staffing levels and capabilities, sources said, though “severe concern” remained about the project getting “bogged down” in Parliament.
In August, the head of the MPA, David Pitchford, said “a lot of things would need to be defined before, for [HS2] to come out of amber-red, or a rating similar to that.
“Before there will be a significant change in our assessment of it, there will need to be less uncertainty. HS2 is not just a single project.
“Some of the things they will need to build in terms of the stations and things are quite significant major projects in their own right.”
The new figures for 2012 passenger numbers at Euston, the West Coast Main Line’s southern terminus, disprove ministers’ claims of a “capacity crisis” and “time bomb” on the route.
They show that even in the busiest hour of the morning peak, long-distance trains arriving at Euston were only 64.2 per cent full — and suburban and regional trains 77.3 per cent full, making Euston the least crowded London terminus. Across the evening peak, long-distance trains were 56.8 per cent full.
Steep year-on-year declines in rush-hour passenger numbers were also recorded, with long-distance arrivals in the busiest morning peak hour falling by 9.7 per cent. Peak suburban and regional passengers also fell, by 1.2 per cent in the peak morning hour and by 4.2 per cent across the peak three hours.
A Department for Transport
spokesman said: “This report is around two years old — things have moved on and
we have acted on all the issues raised. HS2 is in excellent shape — we have
deposited the Bill for the first phase of the railway from