Great expectations

Rail Minister Claire Perry is confident about the future of High Speed 2. 

Speaking at RAIL’s National Rail Conference on November 5 in Leeds, Perry says: “Royal Assent will be granted next year, and there will be spades in the ground from 2017. 

“This is a great opportunity to start promoting the benefits, as I said not just for HS2 but for railways in general.

“The capacity increase from the South through the Midlands is absolutely vital. It will galvanise the economy, particularly in the North and the Midlands. The mere fact that this railway is coming is breaking down barriers across political parties, local authorities, business and politics. People are coming together in all sorts of groups to talk about how they can benefit from these new paths, this new capacity. As for freight, there are enormous opportunities for exporters.” 

Her view certainly matches the key argument for HS2 - capacity. She says that had it been named ‘High Capacity 2’ then the project would not have faced so much opposition. Turning back to the subject of freight, Perry explains: “If you talk to Birmingham businesses about the opportunity to export down these new paths they’re very excited. This has had an interesting side-effect. 

“Various industry collaborations for the rail supply, rail delivery and rail freight groups are really starting to work now. So the industry is starting to speak in one voice, particularly about the need to maintain strategic freight lines. That thinking and that voice is being heard loud and clear, both in terms of the main line rail networks, and as we move forward with HS2.”

There are concerns about HS2, that it will take money from other projects, and that regions not served by the new railway are paying for something they do not benefit from. Perry says of this: “A councillor in Suffolk told me she was concerned that HS2 was somehow sucking the railway budget dry. I told her that of the £38 billion we are spending on the railway over the next five years, a small fraction is going into the start-up of HS2. And it’s not a case of having to decide between this project or that project, we must do everything.” 

She adds: “We all know that transport projects deliver huge amounts of economic value. I’m also interested in building a better business case. The business case for HS1 was marginal. But where would be without it at St Pancras? We have to do a better job of capturing and communicating the value that transport investment brings.”

Perry certainly believes the railway will be built. But ultimately, if the railway is to gain public approval, the most important factor will be the passengers’ perceptions. What are her views on the customer experience? She says she’s spoken with HS2 Ltd about this. “The passenger experience is front and centre of HS2’s approach to envisaging what a journey should be like.” 

She emphasises the need for a clear thought process regarding how the railway will be operated. It’s a chance to do it in a completely different way to any other railway, yet in a way that works incredibly well.” But, she warns: “We want an operating model that best delivers that service at the right cost.”

The new railway aims to bring investment opportunities to the North. But some have suggested that it is a project designed to bring more money into London. Perry vehemently disagrees: “HS2 is entirely about improving connectivity North to South and South to North. It will make it easy for people to relocate businesses out of the South East.”

HS2 will also create commuting opportunities. Perry says: “Some people believe that this will only make it more attractive to go and live in the South East. But what if you could live in Warwickshire, or Leeds or Manchester, and work in London? The time saved here would also make commuting to the south of London more attractive. 

Perry points out: “The biggest growth over the last few years has been in regional rail. People are using the railways to travel to places other than London.”

HS2, she says, will start to re-establish pride in the transport network. “We love our steam trains, and we love to talk about our railway history, but the railway is also the transport system of the future. It’s clean, it’s vast, it’s convenient. It runs right into our city centres, right where you need it to be. 

“For me, one of the most important things about HS2 is that it will bring us closer to that ‘one nation’ vision.” She says HS2 has already triggered economic activity across the country. “HS2 is now all about delivery. Over the summer, we started recruiting for HS2 design’s panel. Lord Adonis has joined HS2 Ltd’s board. He was the champion of HS2 in the last Labour government, and he is a railway man. I think he is a wonderful addition to the team. 

“Soon, we’ll announce the route that takes forward the northern sections from Birmingham and Manchester to Leeds.”

She acknowledges that cities are gearing up for the advantages the new railway will bring. She talks of the business opportunities for contractors, a key feature of which has been how small and medium-sized firms account for 60% of those involved. HS2 Ltd, she says, has been touring the country, engaging firms that are interested in bidding, talking to banks and to shareholders, gearing up for orders and asking the industry to think about what it can deliver. 

Finally, HS2, says Perry, offers a golden opportunity for the industry as a whole. “We will never get a better chance to promote the railway than we have with HS2. That’s a responsibility that we all share. 

“Government will do its part, but everybody needs to get out there and talk about why this is such a great project for Britain. HS2 is a clean slate. It gives us an opportunity to put the passengers at the very centre of everything that we do, and to give people a reason to be proud of the railway again. It’s a chance to make young people feel excited about a career in such a dynamic and exciting industry, and to show the public how the railway makes modern Britain a better place to live.

 “And ultimately, I want to re-awaken that sense of pride in this country, which created the railway in the first place. We have an incredibly exciting few years ahead of us.”

  • This feature was published in the HS2 supplement in RAIL 789 (December 9 2015)

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