You don’t get to be the £597,000-a-year chairman of a big government-owned company like HS2 Limited without knowing how to handle demanding politicians and a dimwitted public. And so it is with Sir David Higgins. His report ‘HS2 Plus’ published on Monday, was hotly anticipated in the media, who said he was going to propose ways of lowering the cost of the £43 billion High Speed 2 rail project, just as both Labour and Conservative politicians demanded.
In the end, Sir David proposed doing almost nothing new about the project, and very little in the way of cost cutting. The project’s budget will stay the same. Yet he received praise from many commentators who seemed to think he was calling for major changes. That is no bad thing if the project is essentially sound, but then his report is little more than brilliant – and rather sneaky – PR.
This has happened before. I blogged last month about how the Department for Transport had briefed the media about a supposed £10 billion cost saving, when that ‘saving’ was already part of the HS2 plan.
Part of the Higgins report restated existing arguments about HS2: for example, that passenger traffic is going up and that the project will help fix the north-south divide by making the centre and north of the UK more economically competitive with the south-east. So far, so familiar.
The report attracted attention by calling for a new station, called a ‘regional transport hub’, at Crewe and doing this by 2027, six years before the northern sections of HS2 are scheduled to be finished. Trouble is, this was already anticipated by the HS2 Phase Two environmental statement published last July, which says:
“HS2 Ltd also developed an option which converted Crewe into a high speed station. This could bring significant benefits to passengers wanting to use Crewe station whilst still providing a connection to the existing railway to allow services still able to run on to Liverpool and the North West.”
So the station is not new – only the 2027 date is, and even under this new timetable HS2 won’t reach Manchester or Leeds by then. That same environmental statement talked of how HS2 trains could run on from a link line at Crewe to the existing rail network and other parts of the country, like North and South Wales, which have complained up till now (somewhat unfairly) that HS2 doesn’t serve them.
Similarly, going for a full rebuild of Euston station was initially considered among the options for HS2 Phase One – and then discounted on cost grounds. Plus, as I blogged on Monday, the idea of getting property developers to contribute towards the cost of the new Euston station is not new to either HS2 or Crossrail, where it’s already been done.
Finally, Sir David talks in his report of HS2 being a network, not a line, of it having to be integrated with the existing rail network and transport links. All well and good. And already part of the plan: that is why infrastructure minister Lord Deighton has been packed off to provincial cities with his ‘HS2 growth taskforce’, encouraging them to get ready for HS2. To say nothing of Network Rail’s 2013 ‘Better Connections’ report, which was all about getting the most out of HS2 for other rail destinations.
I don’t really blame Sir David for doing this – it’s his job to deliver HS2 and that means educating politicians and the public about its benefits, which are real. This seems to mean repackaging existing ideas which weren’t properly communicated before.