Higgins at the Transport Select Committee

A couple of weeks ago David Higgins, non-executive chair of HS2 Ltd, was interviewed by some of the MPs on the Transport Select Committee at the University of Manchester. The transcript is here and you can listen to the whole session.

The MPs at the committee were Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool Riverside); Jason McCartney(Colne Valley); Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) and Martin Vickers(Cleethorpes).

Higgins explained that they were “still forecasting Royal Assent by the end of 2016, which would allow construction to start 2017”. Higgins referred to Phase “2A” for the route to Crewe, with a Hybrid Bill Royal Assent in 2018 or 2019 and Royal Assent for the rest of Phase 2 being planned for 2021.

Higgins said that the plans for Crewe could not be added to the current Hybrid Bill, and that although he recommended splitting the Phase 2 bill, “ultimately that is a decision for Ministers”.

Later in the session, Higgins described the timetable as:

“Royal Assent 2021 or, probably more importantly, final decision on the route, let us say final decision is 2016, consultation coming into 2016, final decision end of 2016, start the preparation of the Hybrid Bill in 2017-2018, submission 2019 … Royal Assent in 2021”

Louise Ellman asked “What other building could start from the north when we are looking at phase 2?”

Higgins came up with a list of non-HS2 work that could be done, such as freight improvements and the current electrification work from Liverpool to Wigan and Liverpool to Manchester.

Pressed further, Higgins suggested planning work on the existing stations. He said that work on the line can’t be done until they have acquired the land, and that they “would not have approval from the Government or from Treasury to carry out that work without the power of the Royal Assent.”

Higgins talked about an interim report on HS2 to Scotland which they planned to lodge with the Department for Transport, and said the publication date was up to the Department. There was also some discussion of the HS3/One North proposal. Martin Vickers commented that HS2 “is a hard sell when you represent northern Lincolnshire”.

Graham Stringer asked about why HS2 is slower to build in comparison to high speed networks in other countries and commented that Higgins was “optimistic that the delivery date could be brought forward”. Higgins said this was ” dependent on cash flow … it really depends on the availability of public expenditure.”

(Meanwhile the date for Royal Assent for HS2 Phase 1 has slipped from 2015 to 2016, and the government announcement of the decision on Phase 2 – originally due in 2014 – will be over a year. The plans at Euston are being delayed as well.)

Higgins confirmed that they were spending £230 million this year, and under the Paving Act could spend up to a £1billion before Royal Assent. Jason McCartney pointed out that it was a challenge to win the “hearts and minds” of commuters who used trains like Northern Rail Pacers when they heard about the sums being spent on HS2.

In a discussion about Higgins’ meetings with ministers and whether he was satisfied with civil servants, Graham Stringer summarised it as

“not really a comprehensive endorsement of the officials, either in quantity or quality, within the Department for Transport. Are you in a position to be able to judge that?… Are you looking at the risk or the potential risk from the Department itself?”

There was discussion of the proposed Transport for the North body and any similarities to Transport for London.

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