Public needs to be persuaded if HS2 uncertainty is to be banished

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Senior reporter

Officials are still failing to make convincing arguments for HS2, and it’s a mark of the failure of the government’s delivery of an integrated transport policy

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.