Sir David Higgins is making the most of the first few weeks in his job as chief of HS2 Ltd to fight the new line’s corner. In an interview in today’s Daily Telegraph, Higgins makes a strong case (arguably better than anyone from the government) for the line, explaining why there is no alternative. He warns that the existing rail lines risk becoming similar to the ‘Piccadilly line at rush hour’:
‘There are no new train paths. We’d love to put more trains on the west coast. It performs at 85 per cent. It’s a very tired, old, smartly refurbished railway line that is right at capacity. It’s the busiest mixed use railway line in Europe and it’s showing. We can’t get more trains on it. HS2 offers 18 train paths an hour each way’
Higgins also says ‘the clock is always ticking’ and political dithering remains the greatest threat to the project. While the Conservative leadership are ‘passionate’ about the line, he is less convinced about Labour. As well as a concern HS2 is a ‘vanity project’ — albeit one they founded — Labour’s main worry is whether HS2 will be a waste of money and time. ‘They’re behind it but they want to be convinced that it will be managed responsibly’, said Higgins who thinks these are ‘legitimate questions’.
When I interviewed Andrew Adonis last year, I asked him about the management of HS2 and what Labour believes should be done. His thoughts were unpublished at the time but are interesting in this context. Adonis indicated that Labour had influenced Higgins’ appointment and he would be beneficial to the project:
‘I believe Labour will stick with HS2, but we want to see much better project management. Within two days of Ed Balls’ speech David Higgins was appointed head of HS2. I call that a result. I think we will see a string of improvement to the project management over the coming months’
How strongly Labour believes in the project will soon be tested. The response from Ed Balls and Miliband on Higgins’ first report, due out in March, will be a crucial indicator of whether Labour’s support will continue through to the general election. The Hybrid Bill is currently awaiting a second reading in the Commons — something the advocates of the line want to see soon. But there is still a lot of doubt of whether the bill will be passed before the election. Higgins is right: the longer our politicians wait, the less chance there is of HS2 actually happening.
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