Transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin evoked the pioneering spirit of Brunel and Stephenson last week as he came out fighting in defence of the much-maligned High Speed 2 rail scheme.
McLoughlin told an invited audience at the ICE that these great engineers also faced “immense criticism” when planning and building major infrastructure schemes.
He led a fierce defence of the proposed rail link between London and the North. He was responding to a wave of criticism culminating with the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee saying the government had failed to justify the project’s £50bn price tag.
McLoughlin insisted project promoter HS2 Ltd’s chairman Doug Oakervee and Network Rail chief executive David Higgins were “following in the footsteps” of the great 19th century engineers with HS2.
The transport secretary defended the costs and the benefits of HS2, and announced that an updated cost:benefit analysis would be published before the end of the year.
“The main reason we need HS2 is as a heart bypass for the clogged arteries of our transport system,” he said.
“The main reason we need HS2 is as a heart bypass for the clogged arteries of our transport system”
Patrick McLoughlin, transport secretary
McLoughlin insisted the construction project could come in under budget and revealed that work was underway to cut its contingency allowance.
“The budget [for building the infrastructure] is £42.6bn - not £70bn, £80bn or, as somebody said this morning, £100bn,” said McLoughlin.
“This includes a contingency of £14.4bn that we are determined to bear down on. We are working with business experts at Saïd Business School on the scope for reducing the contingency.”
He insisted HS2 would pay for itself in economic growth. Research by KPMG was published immediately after the speech, showing the scheme could generate up to £15bn per year in economic output.
McLoughlin also dismissed claims that there were better ways to meet the objectives of HS2.
“Independent studies have looked at the alternatives: yet another upgrade to the West Coast line; new motorways through the countryside; or more air travel. None of them stack up in terms of cost or capacity or environmental impact.”
ICE director-general Nick Baveystock urged the government to improve its HS2 PR offensive.
“As well as continuing to develop the business case, the government must better communicate that HS2 is a complement, not an alternative, to other transport investment, and position it as an integral part of a national transport strategy rather than a project developed in isolation,” he said.
“It must also take a strong lead in expelling the misunderstandings around risk management and contingency budgets which have caused concern around projected costs.”
Public accounts committee chairman Margaret Hodge
last week said that the Department for Transport had failed to present a convincing strategic case for HS2.
“It has not yet demonstrated that this is the best way to spend £50bn on rail investment in these constrained times, and that the improved connectivity will promote growth in the regions rather than sucking even more activity into London,” she said.