How the HS2 train might look
How the HS2 train might look

The HS2 high speed rail project will be relaunched next month, with a public relations offensive highlighting benefits to commuters and the north of the UK.

There are also plans to cut the £50bn price tag by speeding up construction work.

Ministers have backed a new sales pitch for HS2, abandoning a previous emphasis on intercity speed and focusing instead on the role of the line in cutting overcrowding on commuter routes.

The recent rebranding of the project as the “north-south railway” will also be accompanied by a much sharper focus on the project as part of general rail improvements to connect northern cities.

The relaunch comes amid fracturing support for HS2 in the north and is intended to reinforce cross-party backing, after Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, said Labour was looking again at its value.

To reassure any future Labour government, Sir David Higgins, the new HS2 chairman, will next month outline how the line could be delivered more quickly and for less money.

Sir David is expected to publish a report in early March that will look at shortening the construction period, a move that would help reduce costs by removing inflationary pressures.

As envisaged, HS2 is a two-stage project, with work on phase one between London and Birmingham due to start in 2017 and opening in 2026. The second phase linking Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds is less developed and it is not due to open until 2033.

Sir David has questioned why it will take so long to build the whole HS2 line and support has been growing for his idea of starting work at both ends, led by the northern cities who fear the political impetus for the project could peter out before work on phase two ever starts.

The HS2 relaunch is an admission that ministers misjudged the public mood when they focused on the prospect of 225mph train travel between London, Birmingham and the north, rather than on an increase in rail capacity.

“This can’t be about new technology,” said one official close to the project, admitting that the original sales pitch made HS2 sound like an expensive scheme to speed up travel for business people.

“This is about someone waiting in the rain on a platform in Milton Keynes. In the coming years these commuter lines are going to be like the Piccadilly line, with people piling in at peak times.”

Tom Kelly, Tony Blair’s former head of press in Downing Street, is being drafted in to oversee the PR campaign, which will also stress the connections between HS2 and newly electrified lines linking cities including Leeds and Manchester.

There is some concern that the previous staunch support from the north is starting to fragment, because cities that do not see themselves as direct beneficiaries of the line are starting to go cold about the project.

Wakefield city councillors last week voted to oppose HS2 – the proposed route cuts through the area on its way to Leeds and Sheffield but the city will not have a station.

In contrast, a group of business and civic leaders from Liverpool have launched a campaign to have HS2 extended to the city.

The parliamentary process, or hybrid bill, for the first phase of the line has just started, and the government has set itself the challenging target of completing it before the general election next May.

Towns and cities that already have good connections to London – including those in Yorkshire but also Preston and Warrington – fear a downgrading of existing main lines.

A survey of small companies by the Yorkshire Post and the law firm Nabarro found a majority opposed HS2.

Get alerts on HS2 when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article