February 23 was a truly historic day for the UK, as Her Majesty the Queen gave Royal Assent for HS2 Phase 1.
A project that has been discussed for almost a decade, and which has cross-party support, has been rubber-stamped - essentially, it has been given planning permission. Construction starts this spring (albeit initially on small, somewhat unglamorous but essential works), and trains will be running in nine years’ time (see our six-page special on pages 6-11, and a special guest column from Greengauge 21 Director Jim Steer in HS2 Matters, pages 36-37).
Celebrations were muted, with a few press releases from industry bodies welcoming the scheme and a small event at London Euston heralding the opportunities for apprentices.
Yet still the sniping went on. During a Parliamentary debate later in the day, in a question to Secretary of State for Transport Chris Grayling, long-term HS2 opponent Cheryl Gillan (MP for Chesham and Amersham) called the project “dreadful” when asking for reassurances that her constituents would receive reasonable expenses for costs incurred during construction.
Grayling also faced this from Huddersfield MP Barry Sheerman, during the same debate: “May I beg the Secretary of State, even at this late stage, here is a project that is totally out of control in terms of expenditure - zooming past £60 billion - with the chief executive having resigned. Will the Secretary of State change his mind, and invest this money in a fast rail network in the north of England and the NHS?”
Grayling responded to both positively. And in the case of the latter, he highlighted projects that are under way such as the Northern Hub and Ordsall Chord. He told MPs that HS2 is not an either/or project, but instead one that is essential for capacity.
He’s right, of course. But although I believe Gillan’s motives were wrong, MPs are right to continue to keep the pressure on Government and on those building HS2. There is a lot at stake.
Now, do not for a second think I am against the project - that could not be further from the truth. High Speed 2 needs building, and I am frustrated that it has taken so long to reach where we are today.
And don’t listen to the usual critics. The West Coast Main Line (WCML) is full. The Victorians did a wonderful job, but as the wall collapse at Liverpool Lime Street illustrates (see pages 12-13), much of the infrastructure is operating at its limits. £9 billion was spent on upgrading the WCML, yet the line is full barely a decade later. The West Coast will continue to play a vital role when HS2 opens, both for commuters and freight. This is only possible through the creation of capacity as a result of building HS2.
HS2 will transform the lives of those using it, for the better. But it won’t just be those using it who will benefit - there will also be huge gains for those building it.
We are living in uncertain times. Nobody knows the impact that Brexit will have on this country, but building HS2 will help. Last summer, within a week of the referendum vote, GB Railfreight Managing Director John Smith declared that HS2 had to be built because the UK will require inward investment.
This will be Europe’s biggest infrastructure project. More lorries will be needed than are currently operating throughout the UK, according to former HS2 Ltd spokesman Ben Ruse at RAIL’s Best Practice Event last year in Birmingham.
Contractors will be recruiting around 25,000 people over the next few years - this will peak in the early part of the next decade, with anywhere from 2,000 to 9,000 apprenticeships created. And all this is at a time of great uncertainty elsewhere in the jobs market, as major businesses reassess if the UK is the correct place to trade if (and it remains an if) we leave the EU.
Where I believe Government is right to ask questions, even if the motivation is misjudged, is on how the project is delivered.
The week after HS2 was given Royal Assent, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee released its report into the Great Western Main Line electrification. This is not a project that has gone well, and MPs on the Committee have attributed this to poor planning. The Government ordered trains for a project where they may not be able to operate, and which could cost taxpayers £400,000 per day for delays if they were not in traffic when they were supposed to be? HS2 can ill-afford for that to happen at the best of times, let alone during such uncertain times as we are currently experiencing.
Despite record numbers of passenger journeys being made, the railway does not have the love of the general public. And it certainly doesn’t help itself at times - while situations such as the industrial action on Southern (which has now spread to Northern and Merseytravel) will have a negative impact on the public’s perception, one particularly damaging bone of contention is cost.
Public disapproval usually relates to tickets. But what if the public, in a time when our leaders are preaching austerity, and when there is confusion and concern over finances, learns that HS2 will cost more than the £55.7 billion price tag quoted on February 23?
WCML’s upgrade was over-budget. GWML electrification is (at the moment) three times over-budget, with the PAC warning that it could come in even higher when finished. If so, there would be massive outcry. And that outcry would be justified and very hard to defend, even for the staunchest pro-rail, pro-HS2 supporter, such as those on RAIL. I hope we never have to.
What HS2 offers the UK is clearly exciting: improved connectivity and a massive capacity enhancement; a joined-up, modern network that no longer has to rely on something our Victorian ancestors built the best part of 200 years ago; and jobs - at least 27,000 of them.
Grayling also wants a commitment that the UK will benefit via the supply chain, telling Parliament on February 23: “I take this very seriously. We have been very clear when
letting contracts - most recently in the information that we put into the market about
rolling stock - that we expect this project to leave a lasting skills footprint, not just in the areas of construction but around the United Kingdom.
“A number of events have been held for potential suppliers to the project around the UK, and we have been very clear with all firms (both UK and international) that want to bid to be part of it, that we expect them to leave that footprint. It is an essential part of the project.”
Grayling is right - this project is vital for the UK. It is the first phase of a project that could help to transform the fortunes of this country at a time when it is most needed, just as the pioneering railway did 200 years ago. HS2 has to get this right.
Nigel Harris is on holiday.
Comment: RAIL 822: March 15 2017 - March 28 2017