HS2 needs a PR job

The detractors of HS2 are a rowdy bunch. The government’s landmark high-speed rail scheme to link London and the north of England sparks controversy with every new development. Take any road trip through Buckinghamshire – with ‘No To HS2’ signs at every corner – and you’ll think the area is fighting off a foreign invasion.

Now that the route north of Birmingham has been revealed – a Y-shaped route that splits towards Manchester and Leeds – the anti-HS2 cause have rallied even more troops to the cause, with new groups launched this week in Staffordshire and North Yorkshire.

HS2 has proved to be a remarkably hard sell. Protesters against HS2, a mixture of air-headed NIMBYs and environmental campaigners, have played on the £33bn cost and 20-year construction time, featuring almost totally unopposed in the press.

Much of the fault in this rise of anti-HS2 sentiment falls flat in the laps of Westminster politicians. In a rare case of cross-party agreement, all the major parties support high-speed rail, yet none of them bother to give much more than blasé routines about the scheme’s benefits. It’s a PR disaster.

It’s true that the governments in France and Germany barely stop to think when planning new high-speed rail, but we Brits are more discerning. We need more than a coalition soundbite about the scheme’s importance for British businesses. In times of austerity, we require argument for the common man. The government need a new strategy to sell HS2 to us.

The fact is HS2 has terrific benefits for the country as a whole – not just enterprises in northern cities and the capital, but ordinary travellers too. Everyday commuters will see vast improvements in inter-city travel, in speed and more significantly because it will alleviate a transport system bursting at the seams.

Take the rush hour trip I took from Lichfield to London on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) this week. I stayed overnight at a friend’s, and travelled down to work in London on the 7.08 Monday morning train. It was packed. Rammed. An 80 minute slog standing under the armpit of a tall gentleman who clearly needed a shower. This experience is shared by thousands every day.

Owing to faster and longer trains, with HS2’s completion, capacity would be vastly increased on the WCML line which desperately needs more seats now. Three of the 10 busiest rail journeys in the UK are between London Euston and Birmingham (running as much as 162% capacity). Forget passengers forecasts, this is a vital rail network that needs space today.

The problem is, I can imagine plenty of passengers standing on that train who would vote – ignorantly – against HS2. They’d suggest that the coalition spends the money alternatively on improving punctuality, buying new trains or improving the current infrastructure. They might well be going to Lichfield Stop HS2 Action Group’s fundraiser and barn dance next Wednesday.

What HS2 bosses, including charismatic-as-a-bag-of-potatoes transport minister Patrick McLoughlin, have failed to tell you is that infrastructure developments are happening anyway. In January, Network Rail announced plans to invest £37bn into improving existing rail infrastructure by 2019 – well before HS2’s full completion in 2033. And for those grumbling on cost, the government already ploughs £2bn a year into Crossrail – a line that will only serve London.

No one could argue that commuters are generally happy with the current state of British railways. Trains are overcrowded, slow, unreliable, and the system Victorian and archaic. Since Clement Attlee nationalised the railways in 1947, it’s suffered from chronic underinvestment. No inter-city railways have been built north of London for 120 years and it’s still quicker to get by train from London to Brussels than to Nottingham.

But the PR hackjob at the government means that even the Campaign for Better Transport isn’t lobbying for HS2. Isn’t that what it’s for? And why environmental campaigners have focused against an energy-efficient rail link – rather than, say, the planned Peak District motorway between Manchester and Barnsley – beggars belief. A railway has never been a blight on areas of natural beauty. Ask the Swiss, whose world-famous railways are often a core participant in the country’s stunning alpine vistas.

HS2 is at risk of derailment if it the government don’t sell it better. To the public, with its twenty-year, two-phase time scale, it’s as if the government are insecure about their own idea. To take a journalistic adage, perhaps they should have built and be damned.

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