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HS2 Chief Executive Resigns Amid Delays for High-Speed Rail Line

After six and a half years leading Britain’s new HS2 high-speed railway line, its chief executive has stepped down from the project.

The announcement came on Wednesday when Mark Thurston announced he will be leaving the organization in autumn.

Under Mr. Thurston’s leadership, the company has employed 28,500 people across the country. The HS2 commended him for securing the government’s approval in 2020 to begin major construction works.

“As well as successfully overseeing the start of construction, he has ensured HS2 has created tens of thousands of skilled jobs and apprenticeships across the country,” said Transport Secretary Mark Harper.

The high-speed railway was initially planned to link London and the West Midlands, later extending the route to cities in the north.

Mr. Thurston’s departure comes at the peak construction of the project’s first phase, delivering a high-speed rail network between London and Birmingham.

Major works at over 350 sites are currently taking place, with the launch of tunnelling machines and progress in building the longest railway bridge in the UK, the Colne Valley Viaduct.

Mr. Thurston said someone else should lead the organisation, as the project moves into “an exciting new stage” in the next two years. The competition date of the project fluctuates, pending government approval.

In March, the Department for Transport (DfT) announced a two-year halt to work at Euston,  London, which is the terminus station for HS2. The decision was made to save money, as the total cost of HS2 reached over £100 billion.

Last week, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) suggested that the government “doesn’t know what it is trying to achieve with the station.”

The committee called on the DfT to use the current pause in construction at Euston to “finally establish the design and expectations for the station against what it is willing to spend.”

The pause, however, is not cost-free, said PAC chair Dame Meg Hillier. The business loss will add to the overall cost of HS2, said Ms. Meg, adding that the £2.6 billion budget set for HS2 Euston in 2020 was “wildly unrealistic” in the face of the new £4.8 billion estimates.

While for Mr. Thurston the HS2 was the “highlight of his career,” PAC has been sceptical over the cost and impact of the project. The committee warned against repeating the mistakes of unrealistic costings amid soaring inflation and increased cost of raw materials.

The HS2 is seeing 30-40 percent swings in such costs. The committee said that both the transport department and the treasury do not understand how to manage the issue without risking poor value for money and further spending reductions.

Commenting on the delays in works on HS2 sections, Mr. Harper said that significant inflationary pressure pushed the government to “prioritise the HS2’s initial services” between Old Oak Common in west London and Birmingham Curzon Street.

The HS2 reports hiring over 3,000 UK-based companies in every region of the country, awarding contracts to small and medium-sized businesses.

“The award of the rolling stock contracts, worth around £2 billion, helped secure a next generation of UK train building in Derby, Newton Aycliffe and Crewe,” the company said.

However, throughout its construction, the HS2 has faced mounting criticism from politicians and activists over its cost and environmental impact. The slogan of the Stop HS2 campaign says “No business case. No environmental case. No money to pay for it.”

In Mr. Thurston’s resignation announcement, the company has reported that its 19 construction sites are now operating completely diesel-free and nearly one million new trees have been planted alongside the railway.

HS2 chairman, Sir Jon Thompson, will replace Mr. Thurston and become executive chairman for an interim period from October 2023.

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