Presentation matters in debate around HS2

Editor
The Engineer

Everyone knows that HS2 is a divisive project. But the vitriolic response that greeted our previous editorial on the subject still came as something of a surprise. Surely readers of The Engineer, many of whom routinely call for the government to support bold engineering projects, weren’t unanimous in their appraisal of HS2 as a ‘basket case’?

In truth, it is unlikely that the comments we received are entirely representative of the views of our readers: our story was linked to by the website of a campaigning group fervently opposed to the project. But it’s probably fair to say that, at this stage, the volume and passion of the anti-HS2 lobby is drowning out the voices of the scheme’s proponents and, dare we say it, stifling a sensible public debate on the project.

Here on The Engineer, we’ve been somewhat conflicted on HS2; torn between our enthusiasm for ambitious, UK engineering projects and our scepticism over repeated claims that speeding the journey time between London and Birmingham will somehow help rebalance the economy.

And here lies one of the fundamental problems with the scheme or, rather, the way it has been represented by those charged with making the political case. From the outset, HS2’s backers have dwelt heavily on the first phase of the project, describing it as a high-speed line between London and Birmingham, barely mentioning the fact that it is merely the first phase of a network. It’s hardly surprising that people have been underwhelmed.

In our latest interview , HS2’s technical director Andrew McNaughton presents one of the most compelling cases we’ve heard for the scheme. He believes the project has been consistently misrepresented and sets out precisely how he thinks HS2 could reshape the UK’s railways: freeing up existing lines, and doubling the UK’s capacity for inter-city travel.

One can’t help but wonder whether public perceptions might be different had the project been presented in this way from the outset, but as we’ve said before, engineers haven’t figured much in the wider public discussion on HS2.

The way in which engineers engage with the public is the subject of much debate but when given the chance they can generally do a much better job than politicians at explaining why something is a good idea.