Thursday, 31 July 2014
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Public needs to be persuaded if HS2 uncertainty is to be banished

There was always going to be some disappointment with the report into how to improve the High Speed Two, given how controversial the project has proven. But giving the document a name like “HS2 Plus” raises expectations of major additions to the planned network. The reality of Sir David Higgins’ recommendations – scrapping the network’s link with Europe and building a new station at Crewe – makes that title seem like something of a joke.

No cost savings (the purpose for commissioning the report in the first place), no plans to start the second, northern half of the scheme earlier (although it may now finish three years before the original schedule), no extension to Liverpool (let alone Scotland), but London gets yet another major station redevelopment. HS2.1 might have been a better name for the proposals, particularly for those who live north of Milton Keynes.

By stressing that HS2 will only deliver its full benefits to the North of England (and indeed most of the rest of Britain) if it is part of a more ntegrated infrastructure plan, Higgins has in one sense admitted what many critics of the scheme have long argued: that the scheme as it stands fails to deliver the necessary connectivity that the North so needs.

But hindsight is a wonderful thing. Sure, there are plenty of things the infrastructure planners and politicians “should have” done. Not delaying preparations for the northern phase of the network until so long after the London-to-Birmingham line is probably one. Looking at the wider picture of connectivity in the North earlier in the process is another. And sorting out the country’s airport problem sooner in order to produce a properly integrated transport strategy would have been very welcome.

On this basis, HS2 is, as Higgins described the now almost certainly scrapped connection with the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (HS1), ‘an imperfect compromise’. But what proposal wouldn’t be: A maglev system at tremendous financial cost? Yet more upgrades leading to years of disruption with even less benefit? Britain’s original Victorian network was hardly a triumph of efficient planning, built at inflated cost due to speculation and leading to much duplication of routes, while benefiting from a country that was much less densely populated – and democratic – than it is today. With a 21st century railway, there was never going to be an easy answer.

HS2 does at least provide a solution to some key problems with the current network: capacity and north-south connectivity. Scrapping it now and going back to the drawing board would only lead to yet more wrangling and years of uncertainty as our existing infrastructure creaks ever louder, constraining economic growth and condemning millions of us to even more cramped, unpleasant and slow journeys.

We also need to be careful of a “what about me?” attitude. Manchester might benefit more from HS2 but that doesn’t mean Liverpool will necessarily suffer. Government-commissioned figures (only released after a freedom of information request) found that HS2 could make more than 50 places around the country worse off, depending on circumstances. However, over three-quarters of the counties and cities of the UK will likely be better off. This is an argument not for scrapping HS2 but for asking what else can we do to ensure the whole UK benefits - precisely what Higgins has proposed. In this vein, the North needs to come together to demand investment for the region as a whole, not squabble over scraps while a united South East happily binges.

And there are already plans for huge additional investment in the rest of the railways. Network rail has just been awarded £38bn for the next five years – almost as much as HS2 will cost over the next 20. The precise spending plan has yet to be agreed but the organisation’s business plan says £4bn a year will go on upgrades. By 2019 there will be an estimated 30 per cent more freight on the rails than today, while the £600m Northern Hub project improving links across the North of England is set to provide space for 44 million extra passengers a year within the same timeframe. Yet several surveys have revealed the public still thinks it’s an either-or situation, with upgrades favoured over HS2.

This highlights what remains the project’s biggest problem. The only way to bring about the political certainty that Higgins says will speed HS2 along and bring down costs is to persuade the public of its necessity and its benefits. In perhaps the biggest “should have” of them all, the government and HS2 Ltd itself have so far failed to win the argument that there even is a capacity problem on the railways, never mind that HS2 is the best way to deal with it, or that reduced journey times really will make a difference. It’s an issue The Engineer has been banging on about for far too long now.

Higgins is focused on delivering HS2 as efficiently and cheaply as possible. In the foreword to Network Rail’s strategy document, he says: ‘The question is not “why build High Speed 2?” but “how quickly can we build it?”’ But without answering that first question he won’t be able to address the second. When The Engineer asked him how he intended to overcome this problem, he said the public need to understand the consequences of failing to invest adequately in infrastructure. What he and the politicians need to understand is that it is up to them to demonstrate this - and at the moment they are failing.

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Readers' comments (28)

  • This issue is turning into the joke of the 21 first century.
    How long before the government finally except the truth and work on a realistic project. That the will serve the majority.

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  • I think the money for HS2 would be better spent on improving existing infrastructure, flood defences and resurrecting traditional apprenticeships to help expand our engineering success around the globe.

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  • Doesn't really mater what the public think, we're going to have to have this white elephant whether we like it or not!

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  • The point is it will cost more if there is more political wrangling over it, and that will be inevitable if it doesn't have greater support.

  • How many people actually want to get from London to Birmingham or vice versa even quicker than is currently possible? It is certainly not those who alluded to... "...condemning millions of us to even more cramped, unpleasant and slow journeys." One line, no branches, is not going to sort out the entire network. However all the money proposed to be dumped into HS2 could go a long way towards sorting out the whole network. Already many millions will now have to be spent repairing the Dawlish line, don't do HS2 and put in a new inland line to miss that coastal run.
    Fast is not always better, travel wisely not quickly...

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  • The threat of HS2 is looming bigger every day. I live in an area that is now blighted and which possibly will forever be blighted if in factt this train is built. I hope, that even if I didn't, that I wiuld still care..

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  • I hadn't realised major infrastructure projects were open to referendum? Make a decision, implement the decision, pay for the results, gain the benefit.

    It is not the project that is becoming a joke, it is the country.

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  • I find it very depressing that on an engineering focused site, where one would hope for more rational and reasoned views, that there are so many people with negative opinions about high speed rail. Other countries such as China and France see the benefit of implementing high speed rail, what is it about the British mentality that rejects change? This reminds me of the building of Wrens St Paul's Catherdral in london. At the time there were riots as the population hated the new church.
    High speed rail is as much about capacity as it is speed. How is it that people can reject HS2? doesn't the UK need better infrastructure? are we to travel by horse and cart? Isn't it time for a 21st century rail network? The media have whipped up such a frenzy of anti-HS2 sentiment that people can no longer see any benefit from improving the rail network. This is not an either or choice between improving the existing lines or building a new one, we need both and we need far more, HS3, HS4 etc we need a whole network of high speed rail lines.

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  • Heavens, the conflict groups have not even started making money out of this exercise, long before a single cubic metre of soil is moved....! How many lawyer-hours (though they charge by the 6 minutes ie 10% of each hour!) will be required to deal with the 'open-ended' public enquiries, reviews -judicial and otherwise- market surveys, health & safety analysis, environmental studies (studies of the effects on the natterjack toad..) that this project will bring.

    We used to have a joke in textiles and synthetic fibres that the only persons/ firms who ever made any money out of polypropylene as a fibre were those who wrote reports about it, initiated and attended conferences and estimated ins effect! Seems we have still not learnt!

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  • The 'what about me' question is important. Its very surprising to see that Higgins has nominated Crewe as the additional station. The LEPs were told, as recently as mid-January, that the location is undecided and that we should develop our proposals. Stoke is about to spend £1M to develop their station proposal. This is an insult to those who support high-speed rail.

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  • The point is it will cost more if there is more political wrangling over it, and that will be inevitable if it doesn't have greater support.

    It will cost more anyway - it always will... Axiomatic and the public know it. You hear very little support amongst the Turkey community for Christmas so do not expect the public to be enthusiastic about spending more for less. Conventional 'Rail' is not the solution to fast ground transport and that is all HS2 is, despite the whistles and bells.

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