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Higgins: Why HS2 is the right option for Britain

The rationale behind Britain’s biggest infrastructure project – High Speed 2 – has been frequently challenged by NCE’s readers. Here HS2 chairman Sir David Higgins puts his case for the mega-project.

The prime minister has said it. The chancellor has said it. The governor of the Bank of England has said it. 

This country not only has a productivity problem but a productivity problem that is at least partly due to the unbalanced nature of our economy, which has led to real pressure on housing, commercial property and transport in London, side by side with under-development further North.

That paradox is the result of our collective failure to think strategically about our infrastructure needs as a country, and then implement the plans we need to address those needs.  

Time and again, whether it has been Crossrail or Thameslink, we have known what needs to be done – and then dithered. 

The result has been not just an infrastructure that has failed to keep up with the country’s fundamental needs, but also has added real cost as a direct result of our indecision.

Our collective failure to follow through on what we know needs to be done has cost this country dear in all senses. Talk has been anything but cheap.

And it is obvious what needs to be done, certainly on the railways. It is obvious after a doubling of passenger numbers in the past 20 years that we have a significant capacity issue, particularly, but not exclusively, on the West Coast Main Line. Anyone who has travelled on it recently and seen people having to stand for hours knows that.

west coast main line

West Coast Main Line: At capacity?

And it is equally obvious – at least to anyone who lived through the last attempt – that upgrading the current track is not the answer. 

Not only would it provide poor value for money, but it would also cause consistent and significant disruption lasting for many years. 

The impact of that on the country’s productivity hardly bears thinking about. With demand continuing to grow at around 5% per year and showing no sign of abating; incremental improvements, while very welcome and necessary, will not deliver the step change in capacity the country desperately needs – and has needed for some time.

And that need for extra capacity is also true in the East, but the more pressing issue is connectivity: the quality, reliability and duration of the journeys not just between our major cities and London, but also between them. 

Take one example: Leeds to Birmingham, two cities vital to our productivity as a nation. At present, on a good day, the journey takes two hours. That means four hours minimum taken out of the working day travelling. Add in extra time in case the train is delayed or disrupted and, more realistically, you are talking about five hours – that doesn’t leave much time to do business.

With HS2 the journey time will be reduced in half to under an hour – and it will be reliable to the minute. So five hours becomes two – three extra hours for business.

Why does that matter? Because in a knowledge economy what matters is face time.

Wherever you look in the world we are travelling more, despite Facebook, despite Twitter, despite video conferencing. 

Why? Because when you are dealing with ideas – whether in the creative industries, high tech design, the law or finance – nothing beats the spontaneity of the moment. Anything that gets in the way of that face-time is a dampener on that creative spark – a drag on productivity.

The map of Britain’s commuting lines says it all. London is a blur. Thick dark lines from all points of the compass converging on a big black blob in the centre. 

If you want an explanation for the transport congestion, house prices that young people cannot afford and the highest commercial property prices in the world, that image says it all. It is unsustainable. Mitigation will only produce short-term, ultimately self-defeating relief, adding to demand rather than reducing it.

Commuter flow map

Source: Alasdair Rae, Sheffield University

Commuting trends

But what is equally striking is the contrast with the rest of the country. 

Two things are striking. The blobs around Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle and the rest are much, much smaller. Secondly, in between there are vast acres of white.  

Again, take one example: Manchester and Leeds. Two conurbations of 3M people 64km apart, but with less than 0.5% commuting in each direction. No economies of scale. No critical mass of talent. No pooling of resources and skills. 

In a knowledge economy that isn’t just a series of missed opportunities. It is also highly inefficient and unproductive.

So if, as a country, we want to tackle our productivity problem we have to tackle both our capacity problem, which is increasingly obvious, and our connectivity problem which is even more serious because we have just come to accept delay, unreliability and poorly designed infrastructure as just the way it is. 

That fatalism is the British disease.

Or at least it was. As we start a new parliament we should recognise that three governments in a row have now recognised the need to re-balance our economy, and to put in place the means to start doing that in the shape of HS2.  

And parliament has backed them in doing so: by 452 votes to 41 in the Second Reading vote in April last year.  

Of course the parliamentary process is not complete – and I do not want to take anything for granted or to be pre-sumptuous. 

Equally, I fully recognise that many issues remain work in progress including how we integrate HS2 into what is now known as HS3 – much improved rail links East/West across the North of England – as well as the rest of the rail and road network.

The answers will not be easy because, of course, there will be different views about priorities and the usual, false, tendency to treat the issues as a zero sum game rather than flip sides of the same coin.

But as we continue to work at those problems there is one point I would like to acknowledge with all the force I can muster. This generation of politicians, and their leaders on all sides, have been clearer about the fundamental productivity problem we face as a country and what is necessary in terms of infrastructure to address it than any since the motorways were built in the 1960s, and, before that, the Victorians.  

As engineers we should give them credit for that insight and the courage they have shown in following it through. Of course there will always be room for debate and the wish to start with a blank page, to stop the world until we have got the perfect answer. 

But that is wishful thinking – expensive wishful thinking.

Crossrail Tunnelling at Farringdon in January 2015

Crossrail Tunnelling at Farringdon in January 2015

Crossrail will bring huge benefits to London when it opens in two years’ time, but it should have done so a long time ago.

It was first conceived of in 1880, but shelved because somebody thought there was a better solution, not once but several times. 

When it opens it will be just 140 years late and many, many, many millions of pounds more expensive. Missed opportunities in infrastructure don’t just cost a lot of money. They also make this country, collectively and individually, less productive and, therefore, poorer. They rob people of the opportunity to realise their full potential living their lives where they and their families want to.

As engineers we pride ourselves on our ability to solve complex problems. While others talk, we do. The productivity puzzle in this country is a complex problem. HS2 can help solve it. With the backing of parliament we are going to do it.

  • David Higgins is chairman of HS2 Ltd

Readers' comments (3)

  • Sir David Higgins makes a strong case for HS2 that responds to many of the criticisms that have been aired in NCE and elsewhere.

    The 20 Miles More campaign has always recognised the benefits of the capacity, connectivity and journey time improvements between Britain’s major cities that the scheme promises. We see these benefits as going a long way toward achieving the major increase in productivity arising from a rebalanced national economy.

    Sir David recognises that poor connectivity between Leeds and Manchester is ‘highly inefficient and unproductive’ due to the absence of economies of scale, a critical mass of talent and opportunity for the pooling of resources and skills.

    We at 20 Miles More ask that Sir David applies this argument to the 2.3 million people who live in the metropolitan area centred on Liverpool and recognises that current proposals do not go anywhere near far enough to address the capacity and connectivity issues that are at the basis of his case for HS2.

    The Liverpool city region has, over the past two decades, made great strides in developing a modern economic base with growth in education, tourism, retail maritime and the knowledge economy. The region has recently been identified as the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ for business innovation.

    No serious attempt at rebalancing the national economy can afford to ignore such a region. We trust that Sir David, in his review of plans for HS2 and HS3, recognises the importance of providing a direct connection to the city of Liverpool.

    Martin Sloman BSc C Eng MICE

    Director, 20 Miles More

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  • Transport is one case for HS2. There are others that also need to be understood. Major infrastructure such as HS2 has a lifespan that will transcend the UK's and a world shift that must be made from oil, our current dependency on petrol and diesel at sometime must change and electrified rail may become our principle transportation system. HS2 looks like repeating our great motorway building failure when we did not buy land for the addition of future lanes to our motorways. HS2 as such is short of capacity, ambition and scale , rather than a key piece of UK infrastructure looking forward 150 years or so it shows the usual shortsighted approach to infrastructure that continues to blight the UK. It should as a minimum requirement have local and freight lines added where those who live along its route and the rest of the UK benefit. Looking at the present situation on a transport only basis in appropriate for something that will serve the UK hopefully for 150 years or so.

    Steve Trowbridge

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  • Every year as a Local Authority Highways Maintenance Engineer I would try to persuade the Members to invest more money in maintaining our assets. I would pose a question. ’You own your own property ,have limited funds, the roof leaks and the foundations are damaged. Do you spend money on a new conservatory? Most of them understood the point but this article shows that not everybody does. Especially those people prepared to go public with unproven political claptrap full of soundbites and biased opinion.
    And I am definitely unlikely to accept any advice from somebody who, as Chief Executive of Network Rail, set up a Five-Year Spending Plan including a succession of failed targets leading to debts that have already reached £38B,yes billion!
    And to preach that connectivity is the real issue when his first action as HS2 Ltd Chairman was to ditch the connection to HS1 is unbelievable especially considering that this scheme has no connection to the country’s main airport and has no stop between London and Birmingham thus making it inaccessible to thousands of people including all those likely to be badly affected during it’s construction.
    Not surprisingly we now have comments for yet more infrastructure albeit with the need for proper planning. This has to include the requirement for full consideration of the ongoing and future maintenance needs before I am convinced that the huge expense of this flawed project is justified, especially with it’s current route design.


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