ICE Senior Vice President Rachel Skinner joined a Newsnight debate on Friday to discuss whether infrastructure projects like HS2 are the boost the economy needs or just a relic of a pre-Covid era?
There is no "one size fits all" solution to the future of transport infrastructure in the UK, ICE Senior Vice President Rachel Skinner told a BBC Newsnight debate on Friday.
The debate on BBC Two followed news that construction work on the rail line HS2 was underway.
'Build back better' is Prime Minister Boris Johnson's rallying cry and he has made the building of the HS2 project one of his priorities. The government has promised that the project will create 22,000 jobs along with 500 apprenticeships. The plan to provide fast travel between Birmingham and London and eventually, Manchester and Leeds, will, Johnson believes, spearhead economic regeneration.
But the Newsnight programme asked whether the Covid pandemic has changed the equation and whether the need for fast train travel still exists with sections of the population now working from home.
Network Rail had been planning for passenger numbers to increase by 40% by 2040, which formed part of the rationale for the building of HS2 - officially costed at up to £88bn.
"A mass transit transport infrastructure is going to be crucial for our country, not just now but in the decades ahead,"says Boris Johnson. But does this need still apply when rail travel remains at under a third of its pre-Covid levels?
"There's no doubt that the last five or six months have seen enormous change," Rachel Skinner told the programme. "But in terms of our short-term infrastructure priorities, beyond HS2, we need to accelerate our programmes around digital connectivity, around 5G but also around active travel, cycling, walking and so on to make sure we're catering for the here and the now.
"When we think of the real long-term drivers it goes way beyond the transport scheme," continued Rachel. "It's do with the fact that as a country we're going to have to deal with a population that will grow towards 75 million. We'll need more homes and the right infrastructure to support that.
"We also have a legally binding net-zero emissions target to achieve by 2050 and whilst that may seem a long way away these are major projects that need to eat into that target. While Covid is the crisis of right now, climate change and carbon is the looming crisis of the decade and the century. Also, with 'levelling up' we have entrenched regional inequalities. It's not just about North-South or Urban-Rural. It's our lived experience that can differ massively between neighbours just a few streets apart."
Rachel also addressed the issue of a need for point-to-point railways. With more of the population working from home, are they necessary?
"There isn't a one-size-fits-all solution here," said Rachel. "During lockdown some people have been lucky enough to be able to work from home but we need to remember there are a lot of people out there who can't work in that way, for instance people in healthcare, manufacturing, construction, hospitality and so on. As we come out of Covid we need to think much more about local connectiivy and how you get people hooked into some of the bigger infrastructure networks that already exist for transport."
Be sure to join incoming ICE President Rachel Skinner's inaugural address on 3 November where she will be discussing the importance of carbon emission reduction and the need for urgent actions. Book the event here.
Read our Infrastructure blog on whether HS2 is still fit for purpose in light of the Covid pandemic.