The government is finally getting the message on HS2

Senior reporter

Shifting the debate onto the issue of rail network capacity is crucial to persuading the public that the high-speed plans are the right ones.

The fightback begins here. Today the government has finally launched a counter-offensive to the recent barrage of criticism of its plans for a new high-speed rail network

The last few months have seen increasing opposition to HS2 from business leaders and heavyweight politicians, while several reports have questioned its economic benefits and warned costs could soar to as much as £80bn.

When the likes of Peter Mandelson and Alistair Darling – key members of the government that signed off HS2 in the first place – turned against the scheme, it felt like a tipping point had been reached and that there was a genuine danger of the project becoming so unpopular it would be scrapped.

So proponents will welcome today’s report, commissioned by HS2 Ltd and produced by accountants KPMG, which found High Speed Two could boost the UK’s economic output by £15bn a year by 2037, with the Midlands and the North of England making strong gains as well as the South-East.

Perhaps more importantly, this has been accompanied by a subtle but significant shift in the government’s arguments and language. Until now, the scheme has largely been presented as a link between London and Birmingham (and later to the North) that will cut journey times and enable businesspeople to more easily travel the length of the country.

In a speech to the Institution of Civil Engineers, the transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin today attempted to change focus onto the need to increase capacity in our transport infrastructure and argue that HS2 won’t just benefit wealthy London-based executives but commuters up and down the country, including those who will never use the high-speed network.

Language is important. Even the name of this project doesn’t convey its benefits properly. Call it “High Speed Two” and you highlight the journey length rather than the more important capacity issue. Shorten it to “HS2” and it’s meaningless to most people. But if newsreaders start referring to a national network rather than a link between London and Birmingham then many more people might be persuaded of the scheme’s advantages.

What’s crucial, however, is having the right debate. The Engineer has been calling for the arguments over HS2 to centre on rail capacity for over a year now, because it is ultimately this issue that will determine whether the scheme is worthwhile or not.

It’s good to see the government addressing the mounting concerns that HS2 will only benefit a minority. It also needs to address the mounting costs. Finally, it needs demonstrate not only that passenger numbers really will outstrip existing capacity in coming years but also that the current plans are the best ones to deal with this problem. And then it needs to hope the train of public opinion hasn’t already left the station.