HS2 - right project, wrong pitch to the public

The HS2 project has been misunderstood from the start, argues David Beddell, vice chair of the 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 only being about shaving ten minutes between Birmingham and London and this narrative has cut through to the mainstream media and with members of the public.

While this is, of course, a key consideration for the project, it is not its only purpose. As well as faster services between our major cities, it’s about the regeneration of urban centres along the route and the rebalancing of the national economy. But to my mind, this project has always predominantly been about releasing capacity across our rail network and rebalancing wealth by improving links between the south east and the north.

Through the untangling 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 East Midlands and Sheffield) and East Coast Main Line (Kings Cross to Leeds, Newcastle and beyond), HS2 will both ensure more commuter and local trains are run on existing routes and allow them to be bunched together for a more frequent service. Essentially creating more ‘metro-like’ services such as Thameslink or the London Overground across the country.

Indeed, it is for these reasons that those city leaders who are arguing for investment in Northern Powerhouse Rail are not arguing that it should come at the expense of HS2. In fact, it cannot happen without HS2 and the two projects are symbiotic.

New services aside, the fact remains that much of our existing rail network is already at saturation point during rush hour. The National Infrastructure Commission’s own forecasts suggest passenger numbers could increase by between 12% and 43% between now and 2030. We need solutions to overcrowding across our rail system and HS2 is just that.

Obviously, that’s all far more complicated to discuss, and from a journalist’s perspective to report on, than the ‘ten minutes’ argument which lingers and is repeated over and over in interviews and by campaigners on social media like a tired political slogan.

Criticism also centres around the cost of the project. But again, this is too simplistic an approach. HS2’s benefits in redistributing growth more evenly across the country and in providing an economic boost to stagnant regional cities are often forgotten. Infrastructure tends to deliver at least a 2:1 return on investment and in many instances, such as the Jubilee line extension to London’s tube network, has delivered benefits which far outweigh what was initially expected. We should instead be focusing on value.

The current review of HS2, the results of which we expect soon, will be a great opportunity to reassess the project now the benefits are better understood and articulated. This return on investment should be the key figure that politicians and the media focus on, rather than the overall budget.

Protestors are quick to fantasise spending the billions allocated to HS2 on other priorities, but the reality is that these funds aren’t taken from existing budgets and if cancelled would simply disappear. They also fail to acknowledge the historically low interest rates on government borrowing for infrastructure projects.

Alongside economic arguments, the project has also riled environmentalists who suggest that the loss of 100 ancient woodlands is simply unacceptable. Once again, poor engagement on the issue and the lingering argument over a ‘ten-minute’ time saving, has skewed the discussion which needs to be balanced against a range of benefits.

As well as the economic benefits outlined beforehand, HS2 will be crucial to taking more people and freight off roads and reducing internal flights. This has to happen if we are to meet society’s net zero ambitions. Perhaps this is one of the first major projects to balance negative local impacts for wider environmental benefits. A tricky act, but one made even more difficult because of the poor initial engagement.

It must be said that economic and environmental arguments will always be at the fore with a major project of such scale and magnitude. It is clear to my mind that the communications and business case hasn’t kept pace with the project’s development.

One only needs to examine how support from the northern MPs and metro mayors has evolved over time. Many were initially wary of the price-tag, then backed it in lukewarm terms, but now fully understand the project’s direct and indirect transformative effects of the communities they serve. This week some of them have become vocal champions of the project across the media.

They have reached the same conclusions as I have. It is the only common-sense solution to increasing capacity across our rail network, unlocking the potential for new lines and services, and creating the environment to rebalance our national economy, bringing increased prosperity to towns and cities along the route.

If you cancel it, you’d only have to invent a very similar project in a few years’ time, delaying the returns for the country and on the investment.

This is a longer version of an opinion piece which originally appeared in City AM

Dave Beddell is a director at AECOM and a vice-chair of ACE.

If you would like to contact Andy Walker about this, or any other story, please email awalker@infrastructure-intelligence.com.