Clarity over HS2's business case is crucial, but beware the cost of not going ahead.

Malcolm Bairstow EY

With the bill for Phase 1 of High Speed 2 (HS2) receiving the backing of MPs at its second reading, the Government and HS2 Ltd is making progress through the parliamentary process and achieving the important cross-party political consensus called for by Sir John Armitt in his review of infrastructure planning in the UK. 

Whilst the bill still needs to become legislation before Britain’s new high speed rail network can be built, the important tasks of winning public support and securing the investment needed for this long term project continue. This will require not only clarity on the costs and benefits of the project, but also the costs of not going ahead. Mobility and transport is crucial for a successful economy; and when it does not work, it causes significant problems. 

As a country, we are seeing momentum in the infrastructure sector with a successful Olympic and Paralympic Games and legacy and great progress on Crossrail. The future passenger experience, reduced environmental impact and increased capacity that Crossrail will provide London, HS2 can provide for the country. 

Recent research by the Centre for Cities think tank suggests that the gap between London and our other cities is widening. This results in a talent drain from other cities towards London, further reducing these cities’ ability to play their part in sustainable, economic growth in the UK. Improving connectivity between cities and reducing journey times between a number of Britain’s major population centres, is not a ‘nice to have’ but a critical component of rebalancing and boosting the UK’s economy.

In this sense, HS2 is not the answer but the first step towards smarter, better connected cities across the country enabled by transport innovation, technology and good design. 

Politicians and the public, the industry and its customers need to all get behind this project and use this opportunity to get it right and further advance the sector’s commitment to technology, efficiency and environmental sustainability. Nevertheless, continued scrutiny and challenge is always healthy. The expectation should be zero tolerance on failure and inefficiencies, including excessive cost and time overruns.

Significant work has been done on the business case for HS2 and further work is being undertaken. All large infrastructure projects face challenges of cost, time and quality; HS2 faces added complexity by operating in a complex stakeholder environment and needs to demonstrate the transparency expected in a democratic system. It would be too easy to suggest it is the role of HS2 Ltd to manage its stakeholders, the public and the Government. In actual fact, we will all benefit from HS2 being successful.

It is therefore the role of our parliamentary system and the stakeholders in the sector to perform challenge and scrutiny in an efficient manner, creating the best possible high speed rail network at the right cost and at the right time. 

Malcolm Bairstow is a partner at EY