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HS2 can put UK engineering back on the world map

Antony Oliver

The government has come out fighting this week in its battle to defend its flagship High Speed 2 (HS2) project. And frankly it is about time too. The HS2 transformation of UK rail is too important to be lost to confusion.

This is a controversial project, and one that for many, despite the vast amount of work already done, has yet to be justified in terms of economic, social or environmental benefit for its £50bn price tag.

And this week’s positive KPMG report into the regional economic impacts of the project will, do little to change the view of some that it remains a folly of rail obsession rather than the solution to the nation’s economic woes.

It is true that there are quite a few massive caveats to KPMG’s conclusion that HS2 will “potentially generate £15bn a year in productivity gains for the GB economy in 2037”.

Not least when it comes to assumptions about the available land and skills that businesses can rely on to underpin and take advantage of the connectivity that this infrastructure will provide.

But no amount of analysis will realistically predict what life in 2032 will demand. Predictions, as they say, are always difficult especially about the future.

“HS2 must show that it is a genuine opportunity to transform the way we plan, design, construct, maintain and operate a transport service”

Yet as so much of our existing infrastructure investment has demonstrated, the impact rarely matches the economists’ expectations. And to be fair to the visionaries behind the investment that has driven our economy since the Victorian era, there have been few cases of under-delivery.

Ridership

In the last decade since successive governments opted to invest consistently in the UK railway network, we have seen ridership increase 50%, huge benefit from improved connectivity and a step change in performance.

The net result of course is that we now have an acute and growing capacity problem and a need to finally add to the 170 year old legacy on which we have relied for so long.

This week we saw transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin move away from the HS2 speed headline to promote the project as a “bypass for the clogged arteries of our transport system”.

Without question this is a sensible strategy that returns focus on wider, more significant regional benefits.

For me though it is only part of the story. HS2 must demonstrate that it is not just another railway project but a genuine opportunity to transform the way that we plan, design, construct, maintain and operate a transport service.

It is a £2bn a year opportunity to radically reform customer experience, tackle the fragmented, inefficient and adversarial industry and engage technology to transform asset management to drastically cut rail maintenance costs.

While HS2 offers great benefits to businesses and passengers across the rail network it also gives the UK rail industry the chance to once again assert itself as a world leader. It is a prize that we cannot afford to let slip.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

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