When It All Goes Wrong: Part 3: HS2

In this series, we are looking at a range of situations where the symptoms of Complexity – and of inappropriate responses to Complexity – are particularly striking.

Whilst most Complexity-driven situations (and most of the inappropriate responses made) will never escalate this far, you may well recognise many elements of your own situation in these examples.

Part 3: HS2

HS2 – “High Speed 2” (where HS1 is the link from London to the Channel Tunnel) – is an in-development high-speed UK railway link that was to be delivered in two phases:

  • The first to connect London to Birmingham.
  • The second to extend via two forks towards Manchester and Leeds and beyond.

It was estimated that it would cost at least three times as much as Crossrail – at the time, Europe’s largest infrastructure project, but beset by delays and overspend.

With target dates for completion of HS2 not beginning until 2028, preparatory work only began in 2017, and even at that early stage, there was already clear evidence of the Complexity of the undertaking and indicators that the approaches being taken weren’t fit for purpose.

Obvious Complexity

In terms of the Complexity, as well as the HS2 chairman stating in August 2019 that “By [HS2’s] nature, it is also large, complex and technically very demanding”, there were several news stories that hinted at the number of affected and involved stakeholders:

  • The same statement from the HS2 chairman mentioned that “The original plans did not take sufficient account of the compound effect of building a high-speed line through a more densely populated country with more difficult topography than elsewhere – and doing so whilst complying with higher environmental standards.”, i.e. population and environmental factors and groups coming into play.
  • On 19th September 2019, the BBC reported how there were vocal anti-HS2 groups in the context of angry reactions to 6,500 19th century graves having to be moved to make way for the Birmingham station. 
  • The BBC reported on 15th October 2019 that “Protesters have climbed trees and are refusing to come down in a bid to stop them being felled as part of preparations for HS2. The trees are due to be cut down to widen a road in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, but campaigners said the work should be halted until a review into the project is published.
  • Just prior to this, on 30th September 2019, the BBC’s rolling HS2 feed highlighted conflicting views on the value of HS2 to local communities, with some arguing for higher prominence in the project and some wanting to scrapped altogether.

Even from these quotes and examples, there were telltale signs not just of Complexity but also of mismanagement, with acknowledgement of inadequate accounting for all the factors involved.  

Things Got Worse

But this was only the starting point:

No wonder that, in a BBC article of 3rd September 2019, its Business Correspondent concluded that “The outlook for HS2 seems pretty bleak” – if the situation has already been so badly handled before a single piece of new track has been laid, what on earth might the future hold?

In Conclusion

Since this article was first published, we now know the answer to that question: more delays, more turmoil, more cost and more waste…

…all culminating in abandoning half of the original scope.

Could there be any more dramatic failure?