The chairman of the company set up by the Government to consider the case for new high-speed services between London and Scotland concedes that work on the blueprint for Britain’s ambitious rail project is likely to require him and his staff to work through the festive period and right up to the deadline of December 31.

The result of the intensive work by High Speed Two (HS2) will, he says, be a detailed plan for a “buildable railway” as far as the West Midlands, with workable options on planning a network that extends north to Scotland.

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“The deadline is tight but that’s what has been set and we will deliver,” he says in no-nonsense terms.

If Lord Adonis, the former rail minister recently appointed as Secretary of State for Transport, has become the political architect of Britain’s high-speed rail ambitions, Sir David has emerged as his practical counterpart, the nuts and bolts man tasked with turning bold rhetoric into deliverable plans.

HS2’s report to the Department for Transport (DfT) at the end of the year will contain a blueprint for a 225mph line from London to the West Midlands with every tunnel, bridge, culvert and fence line established and costed, according to the company’s chief engineer, Professor Andrew McNaughton.

There will also be three options for “strategic corridors” further north, with HS2 likely to choose one option as the favourite and undertake a more detailed examination of its implications.

Sir David’s 24 years as a civil servant, latterly as permanent secretary in the DfT until 2007, have evidently given him a finely-honed sense of how to handle major projects -- and what can go wrong with them.

Surveying some of the recent public pronouncements on high-speed proposals since becoming chair of the newly-formed HS2 in April, Sir David clearly sees the need to counter some of the hyperbole on the subject.

“If a high-speed network is ever to be built there has to be a constraint on ambition,” he says. “In practice, the question comes down to what the country can afford to build, what can be built and engineered, in the next generation.”

Although the current sums estimated for building a high-speed line built all the way to Scotland -- put recently at £34bn -- sound terrifying, Sir David is adamant that the project is “financeable and fundable”.

Construction on the first leg of the route is only likely to begin towards the end of the next decade, at a time when the public finances, according to the Chancellor’s pre-Budget report, are starting to return to a healthier state.

“If the proposition was to start construction in the early part of next decade with a huge expenditure, forget it. It’s fortuitous but also realistic to build the network when the public finances are getting back into a better shape,” Sir David says.

But it is, he adds, still a “very large sum of money” which will require a substantial contribution from taxpayers.

The most realistic approach, he suggests, is to build the line in stages to Scotland, one option being to sell off each section of infrastructure to a private-sector consortium to help fund the next stage of development. “You could never build a single line to Scotland in one go. It would be too indigestible,” he adds.

“These numbers, though very large, are not totally disproportionate to the £5bn-plus found for High Speed One or the £17bn for [London’s] Crossrail. Particularly if you see a network to ­Scotland built over the best part of a generation, it’s a doable project.”

He is also open to the suggestion, made by lobby groups in Scotland, that a line could be funded and constructed north of the border independently with a view to meeting up with the network

further south.

“You could build from two ends at once, of course you could,” he says. But ­deciding who would pay for such a project is decidedly more complex.

“The planning responsibility between the UK Government and Scottish Government in planning terms is very clear. What is not clear is who pays for this infrastructure. That is a matter between two governments which HS2 doesn’t have a view on.”

In an interview in June, Sir David said the strongest business case for a new high-speed rail line existed between London and the West Midlands. But detailed modelling work on passenger flows since developed by HS2 has “moved things on a bit,” he says.

“We should be able to show a business case for a network which goes all the way to Scotland in terms of what we can model and put value on without getting to unquantifiable stuff.

“Early results show both the potential and significant impact for Scotland in terms of modal shift from aviation and are also showing some interesting, strong passenger flows. Some of those involve links to London, some involve other cities outside London and certainly support the business case for a line to Scotland.”

Building a line will require not only cross-party concensus but agreement to be sustained over the lifetime of several parliaments.

There is even the likelihood that the partnership with Lord Adonis could survive the next general election, with the Transport Secretary reportedly being courted by the Conservative Party to take the project forward under a Tory administration.

But the immediate priority is ensuring that the UK and Scottish governments are clear about what a high-speed network should look like from the outset. “It would be all too easy to have a vague idea of what it should provide then spend ages arguing over it. It’s a peculiarly British habit. We need to agree what it is we want, then stick to it.”

 

 

Upkeep of the existing infrastructure is vital

Sir David Rowlands has warned that building a UK high-speed rail network should not be done at the cost of its existing infrastructure, writes Damien Henderson.

The chairman of High Speed Two, which is drawing up a blueprint for a new network, said one of the most important lessons he had learned was not to divert resources from the upkeep of slower railway lines.

“A high-speed rail network is a fundable and financeable proposition but it is not easy,” he said. “It will require substantial taypayer contribution and has to be at the expense of something else.

“In Italy, large sums were invested at the expense of the existing infrastructure. Whatever the government and successive governments choose to build, it should come at the cost of investment in renewals and improvements to existing infrastructure.”

However, Sir David said that building a network 15 years ago would have cut the cost of the £9bn upgrade of the west coast main line.

Jim Steer, director of lobby group Greengauge21, agreed that cutting expenditure on the existing rail network wouldn’t be easy.

“If you look at the £9bn spend on the west coast main line, 70% was on renewals,” he said. “Even if you had a new high-speed rail line, you would have had to continue to invest in existing infrastructure.”