A revolution in public transport?

Apart from the go-ahead for one of the biggest infrastructure projects the UK has ever seen, what have we learnt from the prime minister’s announcement on HS2? Michael Lunn looks at the clues we can glean.

Michael Lunn, head of public affairs at the Association for Consultancy and Engineering.

In a speech loaded with references to the infrastructure achievements of the Victorians, there were also plenty of clues from Boris Johnson as to future government policy on how infrastructure can unlock regional productivity while putting the country on a path to a net zero society.

Saying that he didn’t want to “steal the chancellor’s thunder," he did precisely that by announcing a slew of new investments for bikes, buses, and roads, as well as confirming investments in a number of railway projects. Johnson’s theme was regional connectivity and, along with previous announcements on broadband, it paints a picture of a government looking to unlock productivity at a local level.

On buses, the PM announced a £5bn investment over five years which would translate into 4,000 “zero carbon, British-built” buses to increase the frequency of services, turning many more into a turn-up-and-go service. In addition, he announced that 250 miles of segregated bike lanes would create hundreds of “mini-Hollands” across the country.

He also announced a number of road improvements - Cornwall, the A1, Salisbury, Cheadle and many more with a hint that the chancellor would provide more details.

On rail Johnson confirmed investment for the reopening of the Fleetwood line in Lancashire and Ashington to Blyth in the North East, with further improvements at stations in Middlesbrough and Harrogate, as well as at Bristol East Junction.

And then he turned to HS2. Acknowledging the poor management to date, the PM highlighted that this did not detract from the arguments for high-speed rail, notably the hundreds of thousands of extra seats, faster journeys, and not only linking Midlands to London but to the Northern Powerhouse too. He also announced new arrangements for the management of the project.

At a political level, a minister will be responsible for the project and there will be a ministerial oversight group. At an operational level, the project will see Phase 1 and 2a bunched together (London to Crewe) with new arrangements put in place for Phase 2B which will become known as High Speed North and integrated into Northern Powerhouse Rail project.

On that, the Prime Minister was adamant that it is not an either/or question as far as Northern Powerhouse Rail and HS2 are concerned. “Both are needed and both will be built as quickly and cost-effectively as possible,” he said.

With a loosening of governmental purse strings, a focus on the Midlands and the north and the acknowledgement that infrastructure is crucial to this, the next few weeks and months will be interesting for the construction sector, especially in the run up to the budget on 11 March. 

The industry can expect to see more detail on the above announcements in the form of a complementary transport infrastructure strategy. Only then will we be able to judge whether it is indeed a “revolution in this nation’s public transport provision,” as Boris Johnson has previously promised.

Michael Lunn is head of public affairs at the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE).

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