It’s time for a single-track focus for HS2

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Government and the rail industry are making a complete balls-up of selling HS2 to the public. Opponents of the high-speed rail link between London and the North are having a field day, aided by a media which has been happy to brand the £40bn (give or take £30bn) project an expensive white elephant. When it comes to getting your message across, it’s often easier to be an opponent rather than a supporter. You tend to get more headlines that way. But let’s not blame the media for pushing this project relentlessly towards the tray marked ‘No, Nay, Never’.  If the messengers can’t decide what the message is, let alone convince a sceptical audience to believe it, they can’t then expect journalists to do their job for them. Cameron, Osborne and McLoughlin have more than enough communications advisers and press officers to be able to create and deliver a communications strategy that can create a convincing case for HS2, but so far there is little evidence to show they even have a strategy. Here’s a prime example. Last week, David Cameron admitted the Government had been wrong to focus the argument on faster journey times. He said the key message was that the rail network needed the additional capacity that HS2 would bring. A day later, however, he was telling the CBI conference about the threat to economic growth in the North if HS2 didn’t go ahead, while Patrick McLoughlin made similar comments at a conference in Birmingham. If the PM and Transport Secretary can’t stay on message, what chance is there that anyone else at Number 10, the DfT or the Treasury will stick to the script? When it comes to HS2, there needs to be a single-minded message – and it’s one that Cameron has already hinted at. It needs to be made crystal clear that Britain’s rail network will simply collapse if we do not invest now in additional capacity. Passenger numbers on our railways have more than doubled since privatisation, and nothing suggests this growth won’t continue. That will only put further pressure on an already creaking network. If you think overcrowding is an issue now, imagine what it could be like in 2030 without a radical solution. Opponents of HS2 suggest longer trains, additional services or upgrades to existing lines to alleviate those capacity issues. There are very good reasons why each of those options would be expensive and still not solve the problems – certainly not in the long-term – but the Government, DfT and HS2 Ltd need to be tackling them head-on and giving people clear explanations as to why the proposed alternatives have been considered and rejected. They need to be clear and direct. Forget faster journey times. Forget, even, the economic benefits to many towns and cities north of London. Keep the focus on capacity. Show us what a railway network without HS2 would look like in 2030. In the run-up to the 2015 General Election, the thought of years of line-building work and Compulsory Purchase Orders in dozens of constituencies is hardly going to be seen as a vote-winner, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do. Politicians should think beyond the next election. Whether it’s in Parliament, in the media, at business conferences or at the consultation roadshows, the influential champions of high-speed rail need to start convincing people why Britain needs HS2, otherwise this blueprint for our rail future will have been screwed up and dumped in a Whitehall waste bin well before the Election. Phil Reed, Managing Director, Aberfield Communications
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