Wednesday 22 January 2020 6:01 am

HS2: Right project, wrong pitch to the public

David Beddell is vice chair of the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE).
vice chair, Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE)

HS2 will become a case study in the importance of having your corporate communications in order.

Since the beginning, protestors have successfully framed the project as being about shaving 10 minutes of a journey between Birmingham and London, and this narrative has cut through to the media, members of the public, and even politicians.

While shortening journey time is, of course, a key consideration, it is not HS2’s only purpose. As well as faster services between our major cities, this is about the regeneration of urban centres along the route, rebalancing the national economy by improving links between the south east and the north, and releasing capacity across the rail network as a whole.

Through the detangling and removal of express services on the West Coast Main Line (Euston to the west Midlands and north west), Midland Main Line (St Pancras to the east Midlands and Sheffield), and East Coast Main Line (Kings Cross to Leeds, Newcastle and beyond), HS2 will both ensure that more commuter trains are run on existing routes and allow them to be bunched together — essentially creating the opportunity for more frequent and “metro-like” services.

Indeed, it is for these reasons that city leaders who are pushing for investment in Northern Powerhouse Rail are not arguing that it should come at the expense of HS2. Far from being mutually exclusive, the two projects are symbiotic.

Much of our existing commuter rail network is already at saturation point. The National Infrastructure Commission’s own forecasts suggest that passenger numbers could increase by up to 43 per cent from today’s levels by 2050. We need solutions to overcrowding across our rail system — and HS2 is just that.

Instead of fixating on the overall budget (which has indeed increased from first estimates), we should be focusing on value. Infrastructure tends to deliver at least a two-to-one return on investment — and in many instances, such as the Jubilee line extension, the benefits have far outweighed what was initially expected. The current review of HS2 will be a great opportunity to reassess the project now all the benefits are better understood.

While critics are also quick to fantasise about spending the billions allocated to HS2 on other infrastructure priorities, the reality is that, if cancelled, these funds would simply disappear. Big infrastructure projects take years to plan and get off the ground, meaning we’d be scrapping an oven-ready, carefully considered scheme for the hope of hypothetical, uncosted ideas that don’t even exist yet.

As well as those concerned about value for money, HS2 has riled environmentalists who suggest that the loss of around 100 ancient woodlands is simply unacceptable. Once again, poor engagement on the issue has skewed the discussion, which also needs to take into account the range of environmental benefits the project brings.

HS2 will be crucial to taking more people and freight traffic off roads, as well as reducing domestic flights. This has to happen if we are to meet the UK’s net-zero ambitions and mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

It is also clear that the communications and business case hasn’t kept pace with the project’s development. Just look at how support from northern MPs and regional metro mayors has evolved over time. Many were initially wary, then backed HS2 in lukewarm terms, but now fully understand the transformative effects it will have for the communities they serve.

After examining the project in detail, they have reached the same conclusions as I have. It is the only common-sense solution to increasing capacity, unlocking the potential for new lines and services, and creating the environment to rebalance our national economy.

If you cancel HS2, you would only have to invent a very similar project in a few years’ time.

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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