HS2 and International Connectivity – it needs to be got right at the outset

I believe that the international connectivity of HS2 has the potential to play a highly effective role in the regeneration of the communities in the vicinity of stations and in the wider city regions. A through train from Manchester city centre could arrive in Paris city centre in about three hours, faster than aviation door to door. The location choices of international companies and investors would shift to our advantage, as well as for our tourism, sport and cultural sectors. Offices of international governance could also be attracted. We saw exactly the same modal switch by passengers from air to rail between Manchester and London after the WCML investment, for the same reason.

I fully support the case for HS2 and agree that it is at least as much about increasing capacity as it is about speed.

However, I have been studying HS1 since 2008 and in particular the UK policy failure in the 1990s to deliver HS1 connectivity beyond London. This was not a failure of capital resources, in that two fleets of specially adapted trains were paid for, bespoke designed and built to run on ‘classic’ UK rail such as the West Coast Main Line (110 mph) as well as on HS1 (full speed). The daytime train fleet is still being run by SNCF but wholly within France, and the overnight sleeper train fleet is being run in Canada.

Instead, in my opinion, the policy failure was around not engaging with all the necessary partners at an early stage. This led to certain assumptions being made around border and immigration controls being operated in transit, allowing for a multitude of station stops, whereas policy decisions elsewhere within Government were firmly settled on control points being prior to boarding, including overseas. This remains an issue, for example in Deutsche Bahn’s ambition for Frankfurt – London. The revenue costs of HS1 ‘North of London’ also received less attention at the time than the capital costs.

The one point I would emphasise from these details is that international connectivity must be a design requirement as well as a policy ambition from the outset.

So, for example, it should be understood that HS1 as a technology was essentially built as a French ligne á grande vitesse to be compatible with the first leg of the wider network overseas. Therefore, if HS2 is to ‘fit’ with HS1 then early decisions need to be made on the fundamental technology in order for British firms, and SME supply chains, to gear up to meet the requirements of eventual procurements on a level playing field with others. In my experience, frankly, the UK rail industry has a stubborn tendency to produce sub-optimal ‘solutions’ (such as running Pendolinos at 125 mph instead of 140 mph) despite all the policy efforts and investments made. The point to be watched for with HS2 is that an international connectivity of a sort will be provided, but so degraded as to be in unattractive to investors and customers.

In terms of unlocking investment, and in learning from international experience of driving growth from major infrastructure investments, therefore, it may well be worth introducing strong competitive tension into the UK rail infrastructure sector by not ruling out the option of co-investment by SNCF, DB or others, alongside strong supporting measures for city region SME supply chains, apprenticeships and skills development, and alongside structuring the contracts so that the client maintains choice and control throughout the build phase.

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