Learning the lessons from HS2Kieran Seale headshot

The last few weeks have been sobering ones for transport planners in the UK.

Many of us felt despair at the 'debate' surrounding the "War on the Car".  The implication that national government can't trust local government to consult people and make the best decisions for them is particularly concerning.

The decision to cancel much of HS2 really rubbed salt into the wound.  This is an international humiliation of an epic scale with people across the world concluding that the UK lacks the competence to deliver even a single high speed rail line to compete with the networks in France and Spain (let alone Japan and China). 

As former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron put it at the time, the decision will, “help to fuel the views of those who argue that we can no longer think or act for the long-term as a country; that we are heading in the wrong direction … in years to come I suspect many will look back at today’s announcement and wonder how this once-in-a-generation opportunity was lost”. 

At least as Foreign Secretary he will now have the opportunity to travel the world and visit places with fully functioning high speed rail networks.

We shouldn’t forget that the sale of transport planning and transport engineering skills across the world is an important contributor to the UK service sector - itself one of the key drivers of the UK economy.  What will this debacle do for the credibility of those businesses?

Ironically, the transport planning profession itself has always been divided on the virtues of HS2.  Many transport planners argued that investing in a range of local schemes would produce more value for money than a single mega-project.  However, there was little rejoicing in the discovery that the Prime Minister is now a convert to this view.  £25 billion has already been spent heading in a different direction.  How much more will need to be spent to ‘complete’ the project is one of many questions the announcement raises. 

Other questions include what the government is actually trying to achieve in its transport policy, and how it will deliver it.

Most important, though, is what we learn from all this. 

The key message surely has to be the need for national strategic transport planning.  Currently Scotland and Wales have long term plans, leaving England isolated.

Whether the government is spending tens of billions of pounds on HS2 or completing the rump of HS2 combined with a variety of other schemes, we must have a clear idea of what we are trying to achieve and how the elements fit together. 

There is obviously an election coming soon, but although some elements of transport planning are politically contentious, many are not.  The TPS has attempted to start a debate on this by publishing a five-point manifesto to improve the transport network.

Our country faces major long-term challenges, notably how to promote economic prosperity post Brexit while achieving climate change targets.  Transport has a vital role to play in meeting those challenges.  We need a strategic approach to meeting them.

The HS2 debacle illustrates why we need to take this opportunity to have a debate about what we want our transport infrastructure to deliver and to develop consensus around it.  The failure to do that has led to the point where we are directionless, and worse - a laughing stock.  The time for political grandstanding has past.  The time for a long-term approach to transport planning has arrived.


Kieran Seale is an independent transport consultant and Company Secretary of the Transport Planning Society.

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