On the same day that government released the report of the Oakervee Review into HS2, Prime Minister Boris Johnson stood in the House of Commons and announced: “The Cabinet has given high speed rail the green signal. We are going to get this done.”
The statement was a welcome relief to contactors and suppliers to the rail industry who had been on tenterhooks for months.
The announcement was made during a statement on transport infrastructure generally: “Whether you are stuck in a jam on the A303 or on the outskirts of Lincoln, whether you are trying to get from Warrington to Manchester or toiling across the Pennines by rail, you know that this country is being held back by our inadequate infrastructure, and so, in the next few weeks, this government will be setting out more details of a transport revolution because we all know the potential of transport to change your life and the life of your town or city and we know that efficient transport can clean the air and cut pollution and get cars off the road.
“We can simultaneously reach our ambition of net zero by 2050 and we can shorten your commute and give you more time with your family and increase productivity and bring business and investment to left-behind communities, and that is why we are embarking now on a massive programme of investment in local transport.”
The Prime Minister then talked of investment in buses and bicycles (£5 billion), and improvements to roads, before getting back to railways. He commented on government plans to reopen the Fleetwood Line in Lancashire and Ashington-Blyth rail line in the North East, to improve track and platform capacity at Middlesbrough station and signalling at Harrogate, and to upgrade the Bristol East junction – a major pinch point in the rail network of the South West.
Then he finally got on to HS2. “Our generation faces a historic choice,” he said. “We can try to get by with the existing routes from north to south, we can consign the next generation to overcrowding, standing up in the carriageways, or we can have the guts to take a decision –no matter how difficult and controversial – that will deliver prosperity to every part of the country.”
He continued by criticising the current and past HS2 management: “When it comes to advocating HS2, it must be said that the task is not made easier by HS2 Ltd – the company concerned. Speaking as an MP whose constituency is on the route, I cannot say that HS2 Ltd has distinguished itself in the handling of local communities. As everybody knows, the cost forecasts have exploded.
“But poor management to date has not detracted in my view from the fundamental value of the project. The review recently conducted by Douglas Oakervee…leaves no doubt of the clinching case for high speed rail. A vast increase in capacity, with hundreds of thousands of extra seats, making it so much easier for travellers to move up and down our long, narrow country.”
With a project named High Speed 2, he couldn’t resist making speed comparisons. “Passengers arriving at Birmingham Airport will be able to get to central London by train in 38 minutes, which compares favourably with the time it takes to get from Heathrow by taxi!” he exclaimed.
“But this is not just about getting from London to Birmingham and back, this is about finally making – and considerably faster than the Piccadilly line – finally making a rapid connection from the west Midlands to the northern powerhouse, to Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, and simultaneously permitting us to go forward with Northern powerhouse rail across the Pennines, finally giving the home of the railways the fast connections they need.
“And none of it makes any sense without HS2.”
That was what the whole rail industry had been waiting to hear, although some protest groups hoped he would never make it.
Commenting that the government would be taking decisive action to restore discipline to the programme, he continued: “I will be appointing a Minister (since confirmed as Andrew Stephenson MP) whose full-time job will be to oversee the project. A new Ministerial oversight group will be tasked with taking strategic decisions about it. There will be changes to the way HS2 is managed.
“We will, in line with Oakervee’s recommendations, be interrogating the current costs to identify where savings can be made in phase 1 without the costs and delays that would be associated with a detailed redesign.
“And, so that the company can focus solely on getting phases 1 and 2A built on something approaching on time and on budget, I will be creating new delivery arrangements for both the grossly behind-schedule Euston terminus, and phase 2B of the wider project.”
The Prime Minister then answered those who were concerned that proceeding with HS2 would suck all the funding out of other projects. He promised to develop ab integrated plan for rail in the north, integrating phase 2b of HS2 with Northern Powerhouse Rail between Leeds and Manchester.
“With many in the north crying out for better east/west links instead of improved north/south ones, …some have suggested delaying or even cancelling HS2 in order to get Northern Powerhouse Rail done more quickly.
“But … this is not an either/or proposition. Both are needed, and both will be built – as quickly and cost-effectively as possible.”
He continued: “Something has to change. Those who deny this, who say we should simply build 2B and Northern Powerhouse Rail according to the plans currently on the table, are effectively condemning the North to get nothing for 20 years.
“And that would be intolerable.”