Higgins: Building momentum for HS2

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High Speed 2 chairman Sir David Higgins completed his initial, highly positive eight week review of the £50bn project in March and last month saw Parliament approve the second reading of the HS2 bill 452 to 41 votes, a majority of 411.

That cross party consensus was certainly a great start. But, as Higgins pointed out in this recent HS2plus report, completing this project to budget relies on the swift and efficient progression of HS2 legislation through Parliament continuing.

There of course remains considerable opposition to the project along the phase 1 route between London and Birmingham and across along the proposed phase 2 route from Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds. As many as two thousand petitions are expected for phase 1 and likely to push any Royal Assent for the project well into 2016.

But overall the message seems to be being heard in the cities and regions across the UK that this project does represent a major economic opportunity. Yet the challenge is only just starting. 

Sir David Higgins discusses the project, its progress and priorities with Infrastructure Intelligence editor Antony Oliver


Explaining the value of the project to the nation

Q: You say in your HS2plus report that “as a country we face a choice”– HS2 is a difficult one. Do you think that as a country we are getting better at making those difficult choices? 

A: I think that compared to many other countries, yes we are. Let’s face it this is not an easy decision for the coalition to support but 452 votes against 41 is a pretty convincing majority to get the second reading through. It is a realisation that you need to make long term decisions outside the political cycles. 

Q: You describe HS2 as “a catalyst for fundamental change” – what do you mean?

A: We need to do something that shifts the concentration of activity from in and around London. London will have 10M people by 2030 but my point is where and how much will house prices be by then. You have to ask why is the UK so different from other developed countries with such a concentration of decision making based in London and huge disparity in wealth and career opportunities. I believe that that one of the reasons is that companies need to be near to Heathrow. But if you are one hour away with regular and consistent services rather than 2 hour 20 - and you have a railway that works - then I believe things will change.

Q: Do you also expect HS2 to be a catalyst for fundamental change in the way we design and construct and maintain railways?

A: Correct. There is a chance to completely change and go to the next stage of the way we document and manage projects. There has been great progress with BIM but the way we document and control projects has got to move into the 21st century – the opportunity is there. Crossrail is doing well and at pace and has moved on from the Olympic. But the great thing about HS2 is that it will span 15-20 years so we can train a whole cadre of skills and bring certainty to the industry. The previous stop start pattern of work in the industry has meant that we haven’t invested in the skills.


The Parliamentary process and programme

Q: You say “getting clarity over the duration of the parliamentary process is key” – the reality is that it is going to take a long while to conclude. 

A: The Secretary of State has confirmed that HS2 will not get through [to Royal Assent] before the election and that was obvious. But if we can get through the Commons committee stage before the end of the parliament that would be a big plus. There are likely to be a couple of thousand petitions compared to Crossrail which had around 300 and Crossrail took three years. 

Q: Can you help to accelerate the process?

A: A lot of the delay on Crossrail was with utilities and we are well down the track negotiating deals. We can’t be in direct discussion with the committee but we need to respond to the petitions and advise the committee what the implication s are of each petition. We need to be efficient.

Q: The project will span 4-5 parliaments. What do you see as your biggest risks to maintaining the longstanding bipartisan approach?

A: Losing momentum is the single biggest thing. Projects like this need to keep having events and wins so that the public and politicians can see progress. If it loses and stalls then it will be hard to restart. 

Q: Could a change in government set the project back? 

A: The whole point was that there was bipartisan support so I hope not. The next step is getting the capability of the organisation up and then in the autumn there will be a second report detailing what we have done since the first [progress report] and setting out plans for the second phase.


The budget

Q: The budget you say “is enough”. Do you think the move to a P95 estimate with a £5.75bn contingency in Phase 1 was helpful? 

A: I think that in the end it was the right thing to do. If you remember on the Olympics the government fully funded the contingency and there were many who said we should only fund half of it and that if we ran out of money we would go back to get it. The problem was that you would never have got the money. Doing the P95 budget is an important discipline. You shouldn’t spend a P95 budget – it would mean that 95% of things have gone wrong – but there is no point in saying we can do it do P50 or p80 because we need to see what the legislative processes are.

Q: So can you say that the budget “is enough”?

A: If the legislative process takes three years then all bets are off. And if [the committee] says yes to every change then we’ll tell what that will cost.


The right team to develop the project 

Q: How many staff do you have on the project today and will this increase?

A: We have around 600 people and a fair degree of agency staff. But we also need to employ more senior staff. We are now recruiting the next key roles and I hope in the next few weeks to secure the level to work under Simon (Kirby) to fill out the capability. 

Q: You have said that the HS2 project will be designed outside London. Where are you moving to? 

A: We haven’t said yet but in the short term we will be taking space in Canary Wharf, taking over the back end of a lease vacated by the Financial Service Authority. After that we will move somewhere else but we haven’t said where yet – it won’t be Milton Keynes.

Q: There are many people here from Crossrail and other major project. Is that a strategic move?

A: It would be bizarre to build the next big rail infrastructure project in the UK that doesn’t have anybody that worked on previously successful projects or companies. You learn from other projects. You beg and steal ideas as we shamelessly did that at the Olympics. You take ideas a bit further and pass them on. We will do that with Crossrail. They have set whole new standards which we should pick up improve and pass on. 


The key project principles 

Q: The first of you five key principles for HS2 is that it stands the test of time. How do you envisage this? 

A: I think the biggest test for the project over time is that it stimulates regeneration. The railway itself will be engineered as efficiently as possible – and remembering that the environmental constraints are considerable we are not going to dumb [the design] down. But the big opportunity will be where it lands and so we have to make the most of the opportunities at where it hits the cities. That is the biggest thing to get right. What happened at Kings Cross and St Pancras is a fantastic story. Hard to envisage 20 years ago but now it is very obvious what can happen. Will that happen in Leeds or Sheffield? I hope so.

Q: In what ways will this project really embrace a future of lower cost asset management?

A: There are very interesting opportunities around what monitoring equipment can be incorporated into the infrastructure. Remote condition monitoring is an obvious one and it is about bringing existing technology into the rail industry. There are also ways to structure contracts that tie firms into the asset management and we are considering whole life-cost contracts. On HS2 there shouldn’t have to be renewals – the scourge of the railways – for 20 years. 

Q: Another key principle is to be integrated with existing and future transport services. Is your proposal to bring forward a link to Crewe about integration or simply acceleration? 

A: It is really about accelerating the benefits of the project but it is also a very cost effective solution. The consultation [for Phase 2] continues but if the route does head to Crewe then it should be an integrated station. The Secretary of State has said that he would make a statement on this towards the end of the year. 


Benefits in the regions

Q: You talk about the need to maximise the value added to local and national economies. How do you ensure that development is stimulated by the project?

A: Firstly that [development] needs to be locally led. It needs to have a business plan around each station and you need to plan well in advance of the stations being opened. You need to have local leadership but then you also need to have national body that coordinates input into the regions. The Local Enterprise Partnerships are an obvious way to take the plans forward. But I have met with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to see how we better coordinate the obvious link between planned Local Enterprise Zones and regeneration around railway lines. The opportunity is around not only those stations that are connected to the railway lines but also the other stations that will benefit from increased capacity. 

Q: Do you think that local development authorities discussed in the recent Deighton Task Force report will be key to driving local economic boost?

A: The success of HS2 is really integrally linked to the ability of local authorities to get their acts together. There are many examples around the French High Speed rail lines. Cities that just sat there thinking that good things would just happen them without doing a thing missed out. UK cities need to champion and prepare for HS2 coming now. 

Q: In reality, London will always be the big winner from HS2– does that matter?

A: There will be benefits to London. HS2 will make commuting easier, bring access to vital housing and international businesses do need to connect to London. But if you can say to someone that you can be in Birmingham in 45 minutes or Manchester in an hour then that is a very different story for the cities. Their cost structure is just dramatically lower – office space costs a third outside London.


Speed and capacity versus regeneration

Q: Do you think that the project is genuinely moving on from the focus on speed and capacity toward regeneration? 

A: It is not obvious in people’s minds yet. For example, I know that many residents are concerned about ten years of disruption through construction around Euston and I can understand that. But people forget that there were the same complaints about Kings Cross and St Pancras. Now it is a destination. We need to get into people’s minds that Euston is now not an attractive place but will be the similar destination that Kings Cross has become. 

Q: But speed and capacity remain central? 

A: We need to explain the advantages of linking to the classic rail. We are not building a perfectly pure high speed line in isolation. We are building a rail infrastructure that will accommodate high speed and classic compatible trains. 

Q: Are you still pressing forward with the “plug in stations” concept? 

A: Yes. Manchester is well down the track and Birmingham has developed ideas very well. They are getting the developments ready to open when the station opens. Why shouldn’t we have stations with commercial developments that open at the same time or even before so that you don’t have a station sitting there for years in splendid isolation.


The challenge of developing Euston

Q: You have rethought the Euston station with a desire to “do it properly”. What is “properly” in your mind?. 

A: Anyone rational would say that the logical solution is to have one single integrated station where you can walk from high speed to commuter train. The problem is how do you do it because it means taking out large parts of the station while you build it. 

Q: What options are you looking at? What is your current favoured solution?

A: We now have options A, B and C. A is the existing scheme in the Hybrid Bill which is a new station taking out some of the existing station, rebuilding and lowering and leaving the conventional. Option B is doing that but also demolishing all the superstructure on the existing and C is demolishing the existing and lowering everything down to the same level as the high speed service. So C is the preferred option as a better solution for the community as it gives a completely on grade access through the station and gives easier operation of the station from the customer perspective. 

Q: Lowering the tracks is an expensive, complex and disruptive job. Is it really deliverable?

A: Yes it requires a large hole – but that is what other countries do. There are lots big holes in London and yes they are disruptive but when you finish you set a piece of infrastructure for 100 years. Like everything we need to do it properly. Euston has to be planned as a major gateway for the city – it is 25 acres of development land. We need a private sector partner and we will have a development competition next year. We will choose the right partner and get on with it. They are already knocking on the door. 

Q: You describe the HS1 / HS2 link asan imperfect compromise. Do you think that this sub-optimum idea will ever be realised? 

A: We will do a study on what the options are. All I have said now is that if you do it you must do it properly and justify it – you don’t do something that compromises both freight and commuter traffic and is suboptimal. 



Q: What if anything keeps you awake at night?

A: Today, right now the big thing is people. Getting the right people and the right culture in the organisation is the biggest single issue - convincing the government and Treasury that we are responsible enough to be given more flexibility. 

Q: Sir John Armitt says the key to success is having a drop dead target date. What is your Olympics opening ceremony equivalent date do you have on HS2?  

A: The key date for me is start of construction in 2017 – that is the absolute crunch date. But so much of railway interventions revolve around holidays so Christmas 2016 is also a big milestone date. It’s about momentum and getting started. Momentum will build once you get the project up and running. 


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If you would like to contact Antony Oliver about this, or any other story, please email