High Speed 2 discussion at ICE headquarters

While the financial and business benefits of a new high speed railway linking London with the Midlands and North are widely accepted, forces are already being marshalled for a campaign of opposition. Two men who were involved in the construction of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL) – today known as High Speed 1 – came together recently to present an overview of how their project addressed the concerns of those who were against it.

The discussion was organised by the Railway Civil Engineers’ Association (RCEA) – an affiliate of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) – and held at ICE headquarters in Westminster. David Coles, the RCEA’s chairman, introduced the main protagonists.

Gil Howarth is Chief Executive of the National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering (NSARE). He left British Rail, where his railway career had begun, in 1989 to join CTRL as Managing Director of Union Railways – the project’s client company. In 1993 he was appointed Railtrack’s Director of Major Projects, departing five years later to set up his own firm. He expressed his pleasure at the government’s recent confirmation of funding for the NSARE.

Bernard Gambrill’s career within BR got underway in 1969. Amongst its highlights were a spell as project engineer on the Bournemouth electrification project, time as a permanent way engineer at Reading and later as Permanent Way Engineer, British Railways Board. He then enjoyed the same job title at Union Railways before becoming its Public Relations Director. More recently, he has undertaken a similar role on the Crossrail project.

David Coles put the discussion that followed in context by referring to the recent all-party meeting of the Parliamentary Railways Group which he attended with other RCEA members. He said that it was already clear that significant opposition has grown up against HS2. It was reported that at one meeting of less than 100 people, more than £90,000 was raised to further the fight. Given this, he said how important it is that engineers avoid partisanship, make sure they understand the full facts and give an unbiased view. The meeting’s purpose was therefore not to discuss the cases for or against HS2 but rather to look at the experiences of CTRL and consider how the lessons learned might be applied to the present project.

Go forth and meet people

Gil Howarth started the proceedings proper by making the point that, with HS2, we are dealing with a transportation system, not just a new line. Regular changes of governmental policy should be expected, not just following every general election but each time a new Secretary of State or Minister is appointed.

The mistake made by BR when it publicly designated four possible routes for CTRL before fully understanding any one of them has rightly been avoided. That approach led to almost all of Kent rising against the project and BR was unable to answer any of the concerns raised because it hadn’t done the necessary work. That resulted in ‘facts’ being exaggerated and a pantechnicon of PA equipment touring Kent to play a highly amplified recording of a speeding TGV. This created a fear within communities that the Eurostars would be akin to aircraft landing in their back gardens every few minutes. People will worry unjustifiably – a reality that manifested itself amongst those who lived above the tunnelled part of the route in London; they were anxious that their houses and gardens would suffer settlement during construction and vibration when trains later passed through.

Gil asserted that successful campaigning will drive unexpected responses from government and others. Union Railways came under strong pressure to alter the CTRL scheme for such reasons. For example, there was a demand for an eight-platform underground station at Camden to help the area’s regeneration – not really a proper use of such a transport system.

CTRL ‘suffered’ cost inflation, from £1.3 billion to £3 billion. The problem was that poorly prepared information – an original estimate that was clearly wrong – was released into the public domain. Once it was there, its influence could not be escaped.

BR made a serious mistake when it tried to use a PR company to manage the public consultation. This won’t wash with people. They want to meet the top brass and obtain personal assurances on issues. Directors will need to meet property owners along the route and many householders in order to learn what the real concerns of people are. They must have the full facts at their disposal so meaningful answers are given. When this approach was taken with CTRL, it was found that directly on the chosen route were an old people’s home and a working quarry with an annual turnover of £8 million. Clearly these were not properties that could just be moved out of the way. As a result of such local issues and broader environmental concerns, some compromises will have to be made on the route determined by optimum engineering.

HS2 protest walk
Members of a protest group against HS2 take a walk through Misbourne Valley, on the proposed route.

Consultation approach

Bernard Gambrill followed Gil onto the platform. He made it clear that opposition to railways is not new – it goes back to their earliest days. If the government wants a high speed line, it should be the one to advance the arguments for it.

The single route that’s been published must be accompanied by full justification for its selection, with ‘real’ information given in response to queries and protests. Advocates must be prepared for the argument that local rights are more important than the national interest. During the CTRL project, a booklet was published by the Centre for Policy Studies which put this case – Nimbyism: is it still a valid concept? written by Richard Ehrmann. Political interference must be expected and marginal constituencies along the route may become obstacles.

The CTRL team developed a formal consultation programme, using local halls and travelling information centres to reach people. A hierarchy of consultation was developed, from high level organisations like county councils to individual property owners and householders. Only objectors who are genuinely affected should be part of this particular process as their concerns are usually clear and straightforward, and should be relatively easily satisfied once they have been recognised.

Bernard recalled that local authorities told Union Railways who the ‘genuine interest’ groups were and only these were dealt with. It took 18 months to develop good working relationships with the consultees. Today there are governmental codes of practice for consultation which will have to be complied with. Professionals must be brought in to chair public meetings and advocates should avoid giving too much away during them. Things said get recorded and brought up again and again.

The public perception of railway construction reflects the fairly chaotic scenes portrayed in depictions of Victorian works. The realities today are very different and a clear picture needs to be painted of modern construction methods and how these are far more organised and much less intrusive. Similarly people should be shown how the finished works largely disappear into their landscape once the construction depots and stockpiles have gone. Union Railways arranged visits to French LGV and German ICE sites for large numbers of people, to show them what finished high speed railways were like in operation. The real task is to complete the railway whilst genuinely understanding and responding to its impact upon people and their lives, homes and businesses.

HS2 example of construction site
An example of a 21st Century construction site, which differ largely in comparison to those seen during the development of HS1.

Wider issues

The two presentations were followed by questions from the floor. The presenters made it clear that they were not there to argue for or against HS2. They reiterated that if the government believed in the project, it should present that case. They also asserted that, in their view, the scheme does have full governmental backing.

Capacity rather than speed is being advanced as a key driver for HS2 – was this a significant difference from HS1?

The speakers responded that capacity had also been a key factor with HS1 although this was perhaps not publicised so much at the time. HS1 released an enormous amount of space on conventional routes to the benefit of passenger and freight operators. HS2 is all about capacity and connectivity, rather than just speed, so the two schemes are not very different.

Should there be some embarrassment about the cost and disruption involved with the West Coast Route Modernisation (WCRM)?

The WCRM had, Gil asserted, been worthwhile as it caused us to learn lessons about how costly, disruptive and inefficient it is to upgrade existing lines whilst attempting to keep them running. He spoke of a French study that looked at the upgrading of the main line south of Valence, before the TGV came into being. This had demonstrated the idea to be prohibitively costly and lead directly to the first LGV route and the introduction of TGVs. Shame the UK could not have taken the French experience on board.

One questioner had been the Complaints Commissioner for the CTRL project – a role that involved acting as an independent arbitrator if a complainant felt that they had not obtained a just outcome from the project team. He said that, for most people, the big question was “how’s it going to affect me?”, with the real concerns coming from people living either side of the route since those directly on it were bought out and moved away.

In reality, most of the matters he had dealt with were relatively minor ones that were not directly covered by the parliamentary Bill, such as construction damage to property during the works. A ‘lessons learned’ document had been drawn up following the CTRL work for the Crossrail project which tried to deal with such issues in advance of its Act. Perhaps a similar process could enable HS2 to benefit from the combined experience of both projects?

The discussion suggested that the outspoken minority who often dominate early proceedings tend to get closed down by the reasonable majority once the latter is properly informed and engaged.

The meeting was drawn to a conclusion by Laurie Quinn MP who thanked the two speakers and offered the directors of HS2 his very best wishes for what sounded likely to be a very busy and challenging time over the next few years.

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