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The devil of high speed rail delivery is in the detail of the route

Consultation is set to start along the proposed route of High Speed 2 (HS2) next week and it is clear that we are about to witness passionate debate about the wisdom of public investment in this, a new high speed rail network.

Yet while the devil of high speed rail delivery will always remain rooted in the detail of route alignment, cost, local mitigation, timetabling and operation, it is crucial that the critical debate right now remains macro.

From a political, engineering and economic perspective, the current stated ambition to start construction in 2015 is certainly challenging.

In fact, as we report this week, for many engineers it is bordering on the unachievable.

But right now, the starting point for the HS2 debate must be to confirm that, as a nation, a new high speed rail network is a vital economic and social priority.

The plan, as set out by Lord Adonis in 2009 and then built upon and confirmed by current transport secretary Philip Hammond last December, will initially see a £17bn Phase 1 scheme link London with Birmingham at 250km/hr.

This would be followed by the £11bn, so-called Y-shaped, Phase 2 extensions north to Manchester, Leeds and beyond.

The timescale requires consultation to be followed by a ministerial decision by the end of the year and a Hybrid Bill presented to Parliament in 2013 ahead of Royal Assent and start of construction in 2015. Outturn costs could be as high as £33bn.

As I know all too well from the post and emails arriving at NCE, the debate over whether the UK needs this new infrastructure is very live and very knowledgeable − not least along the highly motivated route corridor north of London.

Yet while we must of course spend time ensuring that the route is correct and that areas, environments, homes and lives affected are properly mitigated and compensated, we cannot allow this very important process to deviate us from the goal.

Given the current perilous state of the public coffers, the prospect of investing up to £33bn
in such a scheme, while of course hugely beneficial to the overall economy, cannot be taken lightly

Hence the need for focus on the macro debate and specifically, the point so often missed, that this new line is as much about adding vital capacity as it is about London to Birmingham speed.

The macro debate is about HS2’s ability to free up capacity on the existing West Coast Main Line.

It is about HS2’s ability to open up the timetable and enable operators to offer a raft of new routes across the West Midlands and north towards Manchester and beyond.

We must of course challenge the cost, not least given that, as the Treasury-backed Infrastructure UK pointed out last year, the cost of high speed rail in the UK is still way too high, compared to the rest of the world.

Given the current perilous state of the public coffers, the prospect of investing up to £33bn
in such a scheme, while of course hugely beneficial to the overall economy, cannot be taken lightly.

But right from the start we must set out to understand the macro arguments around HS2 and so deliver not just a new high speed railway but a genuine revolution in the services offered across the UK rail network.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

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