On High Speed 2

…and I’m not talking about a super-powered narcotic. Rather I’m talking about the new high speed railway that has been confirmed by the Transport Secretary in the House today (10 January 2012).

I don’t have a problem with HS2 or high speed rail in principle. The issues for me are on alleviating overcrowding the existing Westcoast Mainline (both passenger and freight), carbon emissions and the ability and convenience of getting from city centre to city centre without having to fly or go by car.

That’s not to say there won’t be or aren’t any problems. These were covered in the Transport Select Committee’s report into High Speed Rail. Any major public infrastructure project is going to cause problems for some people. If it was my house that was going to be flattened to make way for such a project, I wouldn’t be too happy either.

What saddens me on all things transport is that there is no high profile transport strategy  (that integrates high speed rail) and no high profile people at the top of Whitehall who seem to be championing it. The former was a key criticism coming from anti-HS2 campaigners. (There are pro-HS2 campaigners too). There is a transport strategy that is incorporated into DfT’s Business Plan for 2011-15 but I’ll leave it to you to decide whether such documents are the sort that capture the imagination of the people or whether they are aimed for an audience of politicians, specialists and technocrats.

I’ve not gone into the huge detail of HS2, but intuitively there are a number of things that make me wonder whether they were considered. These include:

A tax on domestic flights to pay for some of the construction costs of both rail lines and renewable electricity-generating infrastructure – both because of the climate change impact and also the aim to get more people using rail instead of flying. (I don’t doubt that this will have it’s “in principle” critics and those who see problems, such as the time lag of bringing in a tax vs when the infrastructure that it funds is ready, to whether the receipts of such a tax should be used to subsidise the fares of rail travel).

Public infrastructure bonds which were covered in the Chancellor’s autumn statement. Will there be more detail coming out on how much money from long term investors (such as pension funds) is likely to be invested, and how much money from future fares will go into repayments vs taxpayers money?

Integrating HS2 with key hubs and placesIt looks like it will connect with Heathrow airport, Crossrail, HS1/Channel Tunnel (see paragraphs 5 & 6), but it will be interesting to see what this looks like in practice.

Integration within the city transport networks of the main cities on the route and other smaller towns and cities. For example the ease of which people can move from one train to another, or onto the buses and trams. This for me is dependent on having talented and competent figures in the (northern) cities who can deliver the sorts of improvements to the transport infrastructure that have been seen in London over the past decade or so. It is also dependent on cities getting greater levels of transport funding too.

The wider ‘vision’ for transport & sustainability –  in particular the railways. Number 10’s website has a useful tool that allows transport watchers to keep tabs on what’s been delivered on all things sustainable rail. This for me includes the principle of incorporating renewable electricity generation (and the infrastructure needed) to feed into the electrified rail lines. I also wonder about any prospects of extending the Manchester spur out to Liverpool and to the ferry terminals linking to Ireland.

Risks of funding being swallowed up by “consultants” & non-productive spending – the amount of money that High Speed 2 is costing is huge. Why? What steps are going to be taken to prevent money from being splashed out on expensive conferences at plush venues that are of limited benefit? There is a significant amount of learning from past high-spending regeneration programmes from the previous administration. How will this learning be extracted and applied?

It could be that the construction of HS2 captures the imagination of people about public transport. I’d like to think so. I was one of many people awe-inspired by the renovation of  St Pancras (which I first flagged up in the blogpost Open data for transport planning). I wish we had architects of the likes of the Victorian masters who could design public transport hubs that reflected pride in public places rather than the bland tents of glass and plastic or the empty soulless spaces of concrete & steel that we see all-too-often.

There is also the issue of education and training. One of the issues that caused a political furore with the Olympics construction site was the significant employment of non-UK workers in what was otherwise an area of multiple deprivation. Given the levels of youth and longterm unemployment in particular, to what extent will the Government be mandating through the procurement processes that contractors have to take on apprentices and/or those who have been otherwise longterm unemployed? Given both EU employment laws and the principle that firms should be able to hire whoever they think is best for the job, finding a solution that deals with youth and long term unemployment while being compliant with the law and those principles, won’t be straight forward.

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