Public exhibitions to explain the £32bn High Speed 2 rail network kicked off last week along the controversial
Chilterns section of the route. Antony Oliver talks to HS2 chairman Sir Brian Briscoe about how to make the case.
According to the large countdown calendar on the HS2 consultation website, there are just 71 days left to have your say on proposals for the UK’s next foray into high speed rail travel.
Last week saw the project resume its programme of public exhibitions to explain plans. Having paused for the UK local elections, the consultation has now moved out of London to the leafy surroundings of Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Warwickshire.
And as HS2 non-executive chairman Sir Brian Briscoe is all too aware, conversations at the 30 events planned along the route from London to Birmingham over the next few months will without doubt become increasingly difficult.
“This is not a propaganda exercise - we understand why people have got anxieties about the project,” explains Briscoe, referring to the increasingly vocal local objectors and national organisations, such as the StopHS2 campaign, who are now mobilising their opposition to the project.
“We think that the route is as good as we can get it at this stage but we appreciate that we are going to see people who know their ground better than we would ever do,” he adds. “They are entitled to put their perspective.”
And having already received thousands of responses to the seven questions set out in the consultation document, he is prepared for many more to arrive ahead of the July deadline. And while Briscoe is, without question, totally convinced that HS2 is vital to the UK’s future prosperity, he also understands that engagement with the public can only be good.
“It is a false belief that delaying it will make it better,” he says. “What makes it best is a really good quality consultation where people are listened to and changes are made in response. But we must keep the programme going so that properties are not blighted by the uncertainty.”
To date, he explains, the residents of Euston and North London have been interested and excited by the prospect of increased, faster and more reliable services to Birmingham and beyond. But as former chief executive of Hertfordshire County Council and before that chief planning officer in Kent, he knows only too well the impact that such schemes can have on rural communities.
As part of the government’s consultation on the initial route between London and Birmingham, it is also seeking feedback on the wider high speed rail proposal. This includes links to High Speed 1 and Heathrow Airport and the phased roll out of a wider high-speed rail network north to link with Manchester and Leeds.
Clearly, as with any major national infrastructure, there is a balance to be struck between the strategic decision and the localism agenda.
“Having been an advocate of localism all my life I’m in a difficult position,” he says. “On a project like this, what has to be decided strategically is: ‘Do we want a railway? Do we want it to connect to big cities?’ The issue for the localism agenda is then along each individual section: Are we doing the best that we possibly could?”
For Briscoe the absolute priority right now is to ensure that the consultation exercise actually takes account of local concerns and then makes adjustments where necessary to improve the plans or even persuades the government not to proceed.
“It is not a done deal or a project that is committed,” he says. “The government is consulting and there is a genuine decision to be made by the Secretary of State at the end of the consultation as to whether or not to go ahead at all.”
“This is not a propaganda exercise - we understand why people have got anxieties about the project”
Sir Brian Briscoe
However, he is also clear that the need to keep the project moving forward means that there is only so much that can realistically be done. Delaying the project unnecessarily would, he feels, potentially do more harm than good.
Experience from the HS1 project underlines this point, he says, where the long period of blight and uncertainty often had a much bigger impact on local communities than the operating railway does now.
Before breaking for the local elections earlier this month, the project held eight events at the London end of the route. Each generated a great deal of interest but nothing like the controversy and local passion expected at events across the Chilterns.
Briscoe says that huge effort is being made to openly explain proposals using maps, graphics and even sound booths that will allow resident to hear what the train will sounds like in the context of their location.
“My expectation is that some people, if they come with an open mind, will be pleasantly
surprised that the noise can actually be substantially deflected and reduced by the engineering detail,” he says.
“Others will say that any train going by is noisy.”
Choosing the right route
Then there is the question of whether or not the right route has been chosen. And while Briscoe is open about the fact that alternatives have been looked at, he is clear that none are supported by the scheme - a conscious decision to avoid the sort of unnecessary blight caused across Kent ahead of HS1.
“The route has been engineering and re-engineered to optimise it, but that is not to say that changes cannot be made,” he says pointing out that 12% of the route between London and Birmingham is already in tunnel. “One of the things we are listening to is how people value the trade-offs between the various interests - community, countryside, landscape, nature conservation and so on. That is the debate for people who live there.”
However, while the local arguments surrounding the scheme are of course fundamental, Briscoe is also keen to underline the role that the scheme plays in tackling the strategic rail capacity challenge facing the nation.
Expanded to death
On this basis he maintains that objectors still have to demonstrate that there is an alternative way to deal with the problem of rail capacity in the UK. Between 2006 and 2009 the number of rail passengers travelling between London and Birmingham grew by 36% and the West Coast Main Line, as he puts it has already been ”expanded to death”.
“The economic impact of having less connectivity between cities is really quite significant - it certainly matters to the country as a whole,” he says.
“It is disappointing that (government) has not been clearer about the need for major investment in infrastructure and to be fair to the coalition they have been more explicit about that than previous governments,” he adds. “Travelling by train now is good because it is reliable and fast but it is becoming uncomfortable because of the overcrowding. What will it be like in 15 years time?”
“The economic impact of having less connectivity between cities is really quite significant - it certainly matters to the country as a whole”
Sir Brian Briscoe
But simply improving the existing route or providing extra classic rail capacity is not the solution, he says. While long distance city to city travel is important, the need to provide capacity for passengers to get on at intermediate stations is, he says, an under-appreciated fact which underpins the scheme.
“People do actually say barefacedly that there is no business case for High Speed Two. That is rubbish,” he says.
“There is a business case. How strong that case is does depend on how the economy grows over the next few years. But even having downscaled GDP predictions this HS2 network produces benefits. We can’t afford not to have it.”
And while £32bn is undoubtedly a lot of money, it will be a phased spend over decades. The first London to Birmingham section is estimated at between £15bn and £17bn which, Briscoe points out, over eight years represents a capital spend of roughly £2bn a year - similar to the current Crossrail project.
Of course there is a long way to go before the project reaches the stage of letting contracts on that scale. The programme hopes to get a ministerial decision by the end of the year, present a Bill into the House of Commons in October 2013 and achieve Royal Assent before the 2015 General Election. This would enable construction to start in 2017 and see the first section of the line between London and Birmingham open by 2026.
Right now Briscoe’s focus is on convincing the public that HS2 is the right solution to the nation’s transport problems and a deliverable scheme.
“How else can we move sufficient people between big cities to underpin the economic growth of the country?” he asks. “If [objectors] can come up with a better way of doing it I would be very surprised.”