This week’s report laying out plans for improved transport connections across the North of England is a welcome contribution to the debate about how best to rebalance our economy. Unfortunately, the government risks losing public support for the plans before they have even been worked out in detail, because it has apparently failed to learn from the mess it has made of communicating the case for HS2.
The second report from HS2 chairman Sir David Higgins, on how to maximise the benefits of the high-speed rail line, includes plans for dramatically cutting east-west journey times between Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Hull by as much as half in some cases.
This could be done with a new high-speed rail link beneath the Pennines or with existing routes, he argues, but whatever scheme is chosen it must be carried out as part of a wider improvement of road and rail connectivity across the North.
Only in this way, he says, will we ensure HS2 benefits the biggest number of people and has the greatest chance of helping to rebalance the economy. After all, it’s little use being able to travel from Manchester to London in an hour if it takes far longer to get from your suburban home to Manchester station in the first place.
Higgins is attempting to address the limitations, both real and perceived, of HS2 in its conception as a single line from London northwards, by instead making it the centrepiece of a much broader and long-overdue national transport strategy.
As he says in his foreword to the report: ‘HS2 is no longer thought of as a standalone end in itself, but rather as a catalyst for a much bigger process of change; it is one essential element in a strategy for transforming our transport system and, therefore, our economy as a whole.’
This re-framing of HS2 is vital if it is to win back public support, which has slipped so far that the majority of the country now oppose the scheme. Instead of seeing it as a way of improving connectivity across the country and relieving congestion on commuter lines, many people view it as an expensive vanity project that will only benefit the London elite.
And yet, when Higgins’ latest proposals were announced, the government chose not to use his language of a ‘national transport strategy’ and instead focused on the vague suggestion of another new high-speed line it dubbed ‘HS3’ (a term not found in the actual report).
Immediately the idea was met with the same argument that has dogged HS2: that shaving 20 minutes off intercity journey times is an expensive folly in an age of high-speed internet communication when what we really need is improvements to existing local and regional connections. ‘They haven’t even built HS2 yet,’ said one TV news reporter ominously, ‘and here comes HS3.’
Because of its poor presentation as a single line from London, the public have largely missed the point that HS2 (and HS3 if it follows) will both substantially improve connectivity across the regions and increase commuter capacity by taking intercity trains off current lines, particularly in the overcrowded south-east. On top of that, few people seem aware of the billions being spent on improving the existing network through projects such as Northern Hub.
These misconceptions were highlighted by a poll earlier this year that found almost 60 per cent of people wanted the money for HS2 to be spent on improving current services, suggesting you can muster public support for this kind of investment if people think it is likely to benefit them or the country as a whole.
Higgins’ proposals appear to focus on doing just that. But whether it’s because they want to retain the facade of being ideologically opposed to centrally planned infrastructure, or because they feel they’re more likely to be personally remembered for a big project than a series of improvements, our governing politicians seemingly don’t want to take ownership of this much-needed rejuvenation of our transport network.
Instead we have another grand proposal that has been dubbed a white elephant before it has even been properly conceived. Engineers aren’t famous for their communication skills. But in this instance the government could learn a lot from them.