After months of speculation around HS2 a decision has finally been made to progress the project in full. Following this landmark announcement this short blog takes a look at the key challenges and opportunities surrounding the future delivery of HS2.
HS2 has been in the making for more than a decade. The criticism that the project has faced during this time has been constant and varied. From anger at cost inflation, to perceptions of a mis-judged obsession with speed and journey time savings as opposed to wider benefits, through to concerns regarding the implications for the environment and those communities in close proximity to the proposed route.
Each of these issues is hugely important and it is only right that a project that could now cost as much as £106bn should face this level of scrutiny. The UK’s democratic planning system has certainly enabled this to happen. But at the same time, we have to recognise the importance of the railways to the economy and to raising the quality of life across the UK.
Enhancing intercity and regional connectivity
During 2018-19, 1.8bn journeys were made across the UK’s railway network, with 17.4bn net tonne kilometres of freight also carried by rail during the same period. The industry also employs 240,000 people. As rail usage increases it follows that investment will be required to unlock capacity and connectivity improvements right across the network. After all, a high-performing railway requires both excellent intercity and regional connectivity.
Viewed in this way the decision to progress with HS2 is a positive one in adding much needed intercity capacity to the network, which in places will free up existing tracks for other passenger services and freight operations.
The details of a further review of the route from Crewe to Manchester and the rest of phase 2b (from Birmingham to Leeds) on the surface seem like an encouraging step too; given that the purpose of this is to identify how these sections of HS2 can be best integrated with other transport initiatives in the North of England, including Northern Powerhouse Rail. Therefore, ensuring that enhanced regional connectivity is also achieved.
The Prime Minister has given assurances that the review is not focused on the viability of these sections of the route.
HS2 and shifting the success narrative
The public discourse that has surrounded HS2 has primarily focused on the estimated cost of the project as opposed to a more thorough examination of its many potential benefits. For example, its low carbon credentials and forecasts that predict for every £1 spent on HS2 that £2.30 will be generated for the wider economy and that 30,000 jobs will be created through delivery.
This is a big shame. Particularly as public opinion polling carried out by YouGov in 2019 demonstrated that only 3% of GB adults believe that the most important factor determining the success of a major project is a low overall cost of construction. Coupled with this is a preference for politicians to talk more about benefits, with the same survey revealing that this is what 74% of GB adults want to hear about.
The need for a joined-up national infrastructure strategy
A green light for HS2 is significant as we approach the Budget and the publication of the National Infrastructure Strategy (NIS) on the 11 March. What is necessary now is that the NIS comprehensively sets out how major projects like HS2 will be positioned as part of a single, joined-up, plan for all infrastructure development and delivery in the UK for decades to come.
ICE has previously published an insights paper outlining the potential benefits of HS2, delivery challenges and the alternative approaches to delivering improvements to the UK’s railways.