Published: 23rd January 2014
Presenter Annie Othan from BBC Radio Coventry secured an interview with Sir David Higgins on his first day as Chairman of HS2 Ltd, the company tasked with building the high speed railway line between London, Birmingham, Sheffield and Manchester.
Ms Othan asked some searching questions of Sir David - just hours into his new job and he gave an accomplished set of answers - which would be expected given his last role as Chief Executive of Network Rail.
She started off by asking what his first tasks would be and he replied that his priority was to make sure the team tasked with delivering HS2 was properly resourced and that actually he had been looking at the project already. He is undertaking a project review and will be reporting his findings to Government in March.
So why did he think he was qualified to take on the high profile job? The answer was that he had run Network Rail for three years and had seen how railway use had grown, congestion increased and that resilience had begun to crumble because the railway was built 170 years ago with all the constraints that brought today.
He wondered with ridership of four million passengers a day currently and likely to double in 30 years, what would happen if nothing was done. HS2 would bring a step change in capacity and that you could not keep fiddling with the existing network and that the West Coast Main Line (WCML) which had already had eight billion pounds spent on it with more in prospect. This had bought some time but it was a fact that it was not possible to continue to eke out this policy on the WCML.
Ms Othan asked him about the perceived lack of communication from HS2 and the associated lack of knowledge of the project by the public. Sir David said that he was sympathetic about this and the lack of detail about the route and this would be attended to.
For example, he rebutted the idea that it would take longer to travel from the Birmingham area to London if you had to change trains at Birmingham International or New Street as the former station would be amongst the best connected in the UK. He added that no-one had decided the actual timetables yet and this was probably two Parliaments away.
He likened the project’s finances to the Jubilee and Victoria lines in London and said that it was difficult to capture all the benefits but that a payback of 2.5 to 1 was anticipated.
Sir David denied that London would be the main beneficiary as it has the most expensive office space in the world and house prices were also very high, both huge concerns.
The better communications afforded by HS2 would enable businesses to relocate along the line of route.
HS2 he said was the same as two new motorways as it would keep freight and cars off the existing roads helping to ease congestion and that the UK must invest. He was asked about Network Rail’s debt and was this a criticism of his reign there?
The answer was a robust no and that debt was the best way of funding huge infrastructure projects as it was securitised against long term income streams. The UK he added had the competency to deliver HS2, after all, it had delivered HS1, the Olympics and Terminal 5 and Crossrail was well underway and on target.
When asked how he would deal with potential change of Governments and politicians, Sir David said he would treat them in the same way, with clear transparent information.
Sir David had a busy day and visited Old Oak Common, once a major locomotive shed but now largely a construction site for Crossrail although First Great Western and Heathrow Express have built a modern depot there.
The HS2 project also generated more positive PR by announcing that plans for a new college to train the next generation of world-class engineers to work on the construction of High Speed Two (HS2) have been finalised. This will deliver the specialised training and qualifications needed for high speed rail to benefit HS2 and other infrastructure projects across the country. It would provide the required technical training to make HS2 a success and ensure it can be built by skilled British workers.
The announcement was made during a visit to the Old Oak Common railway depot by Skills and Enterprise Minister Matthew Hancock.
Secretary of State for Transport, Patrick McLoughlin, said: “Creating jobs by delivering better infrastructure is a key part of the Government’s long term economic plan. HS2 will not only help businesses expand, creating employment; it will also give young people opportunities to get new skills, get a job and a career, become more secure and get on in life. When open, it is predicted that HS2 will underpin the delivery of 400,000 jobs.”
The new college will provide training in how to make the most of cutting edge technology and use state-of-the-art equipment to deliver programmes designed specifically for the HS2 project. It will also build relationships with a network of affiliated facilities, including existing colleges, private training providers, HE institutions and major supply networks off route.
Skills and Enterprise Minister, Matthew Hancock, said: “HS2 will be a world class project using cutting edge technology. It is vital we act now to ensure we have enough skilled people to build HS2 and make sure as many jobs as possible are local. This new elite institution with a specific focus on rail construction and maintenance will give learners new skills which respond not only to the needs of HS2, but also to the future of rail engineering so is vital for Britain's future."
HS2 Chairman, Sir David Higgins, said: "This country produces some of the best engineers to be found anywhere in the world. The problem is that there aren't enough of them, and there isn't a long enough guaranteed work-stream to keep them here. So they tend to go overseas.
"HS2 provides us with a unique chance to address both issues. The sheer length of the project means we can offer people a rewarding career in engineering staying in this country, whilst the multiplicity of skills required means we will be equipping a new generation with experience at the cutting edge of technology.
"So HS2 gives us the chance not just to re-balance the economic geography of the country, but also our national skills base. It is an opportunity we should seize."
This forms part of the Government’s work with HS2 Ltd to ensure the new north-south railway delivers a tangible skills legacy that will serve the UK for the next century and continue the proud tradition the UK has for worldwide demand for its engineering expertise. It is expected that HS2 will create up to 2000 apprentices during the lifetime of construction.