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Presentation matters in debate around HS2

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.


Readers' comments (20)

  • If Government / DfT / Hs2 Ltd were c;ear with their information then it might have been better. Much is all but shouted about capacity on WCML, yet
    In Annex 2 to “A summary of changes to the HS2 economic case” April 2011 at Para 3
    Our cost assumptions reflect the likely profile of demand in the future. It is unlikely that a full capacity of 400m trains during peak periods would be required before 2035. Up to this point some peak services would only be 200m in length, ...

    Theresa Villiers is reported in Hansard as saying that 70% of those using HS2 will be non commuting yet business cost travel time savings (WEBTAG) are being used for CBR claims that have been changed twice allready and are due for another downgrade soon due to a chnage of GDP
    Government / DfT have a lot to answer for in the increasing doubt when they leave out large sets of data that ought normally (apparently due to legislation) to have been included in a project with Environmental implications at the outset (at the time of the consultation) or at least at the time of the Sec of State's decision

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  • HS2 was formerly devised as a way to aid surface access to Heathrow, post expansion (Heathrow Hub).

    By freeing up space on lines between London Birmingham it was hoped, by the Govt, that it would further encourage the building of new homes in the South of England along the WCML.

    The headline phrase "In the National Interest" appeared when Govt decided it needed complete funding from the taxpayers purse. HS2 was then advertised as something that was not just for the South, but as a project that would rebalance the whole economy!

    The present SOS for transport, Justine Greening (whom incidentally campaigned to scrap the 3rd runway at Heathrow) gave the green light to a route that will 'bypass' Heathrow in the 1st phase of the scheme; even though it is now evident the Govt plans for further airport expansion in the South. Hmm, where is the National Transport Strategy?

    Looking at Engineers, it is interesting to me that a company set up by ARUP (Heathrow Hub ltd) have launched a legal challenge in the belief that the wrong route has been chosen for HS2.

    The public, and engineers, have spoken about their disgust at the Environmental and Financial implications of HS2.

    By rights the politicians should listen and take HSR back to the drawing board in an open and transparent way.

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  • For me is not whether HS2 is a good idea, it's about why with limited resources such a project is even being proposed. There are much more pressing needs for Engineering investment, from Energy generation, all inclusive broadband to water resources and costal defences. The last thing on the list is a faster railway network for the privileged few.

    The government needs to wake up and smell the looming crisis in energy, water, costal defences and population growth and bury this project for good!

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  • I agree that presentation could be improved, however the finance would better be used to ensure we have sufficient electrical generation available for what we presently have. HS2 increases the demand for electrical power at a time when the present power stations are well on the way out. It is all a matter of getting the priorities right for the use of available funding.

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  • What we are seeing is an increasingly desparate attempt to find a serious justification for the HS project. The over-inflated initial business case has been shown to be bogus so we are trying other avenues for the justifiction. If all the honest information had been on the table at the start we probably would not have even started the project. As an engineer I am excited by the HS rail project but I can't see the need or the business case. I certainly don't see the need for increased business travel in the future and I don't see that we should expend extra energy to travel ever faster.

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  • Looking back in our history we used to have innovative projects with great foresight, now we seem to produce ideas that don’t inspire any excitement, trying to reduce journey times by ten minutes and creating a new network!
    I would say either put the money into helping create new engineering jobs in a number of fields or if we really need a new rail system design and build a Maglev network as proposed back in the seventies by Professor Eric Laithwaite. Yes it would cost quite a lot more to build but it would be quiet and both cheaper to maintain and operate and could inspire a new generation of engineers.

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  • Yes, presentation of HS2 has been a huge issue for the Rail engineering industry. Or more accurately misrepresentation.

    You really get the sense that the UK Rail industry has become so besotted by the idea of HS2 that common sense has gone out of the window and engineers will say anything in support of the project - no matter how inaccurate.
    I have been engaged with HS2 at a community level since 2010 and the lack of professionalism and/or patronising attitude from the engineers I’ve dealt with has been quite staggering - one senior engineer denying there would be any heat or transmission problem with buying national grid cables alongside the track.

    Andrew McNaughton gives a messianic view of a train system which will transform the UK, claiming it will carry 1,100 people per train with 36 trains per hour 19hrs a day. Does he really believe lay-people are gullible enough to believe, without challenge, that nearly twice the population of Edinburgh will be travelling in and out of Euston every day?

    The public always hears the up-side and never the downside of major projects from the Engineering industry. We never seem to hear Mr McNaughton or other senior engineering figures speaking out on what could go wrong with the HS2 project. When challenged by Joe Public, the shutters seem to go up and a patronising attitude descends.

    And we end up with disastrous projects like the Edinburgh Trams project or the WCML upgrade and Joe Public is told it’s everyone’s fault but the engineers.

    As a former engineer from a country where the term “Engineer” by law means Chartered Engineer and Engineers held in the same esteem as Doctors, I’ve always wondered why engineering is held in such low esteem in the UK.

    Having been involved with HS2 and the engineers associated with HS2 I’m beginning to understand why.

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  • Prof McNaughton told us 18 trains per hour, rather than 36.

  • Part of the problem with HS2 is that the goalposts for what it is supposedly to achieve are continually moved to suit the moment. Anti-HS2 protestations are as much about a seeing a level playing field as anything else. When reports that do not suit the Pro-HS2 view are produced they are, by and large, ignored. Data that may not fit the proposal is withheld and so on and so forth.

    But when push comes to shove is it really that sensible to spend huge sums of money to rip beautiful countryside apart (phase 1) where there will be no access to the trains? Or to continue to commit similar sums for the next 20 years or so when new technologies may well reduce the need for this option?

    Surely the engineering challenge ought to be how can we achieve this without ruining the environment? Actually, the REAL engineering challenge would be to invent a totally new solution and present that to the world instead of copying other countries!

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  • "Editor's comments | 30 May 2012 4:02 pm

    Prof McNaughton told us 18 trains per hour, rather than 36"

    Yes, he did. Which proves the point I was making. It's actually 18 tph EACH WAY - 18 into Euston, 18 out of Euston per hour

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  • Energy efficiency on the railways should be the priority. HS2 plus Network will require more energy and lead to a demand for more Nuclear sites. Going Nuclear will put us taxpayers on the hook for years of guaranteed subsidies to the owners. Energy efficiency is the only way.

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