Making his first speech since being appointed HS2 minister, Paul Maynard says the high-speed line is no longer a pipe dream. Phase 1 has been approved by parliament and initial construction work has begun. The utility diversions, the land clearance and environmental surveys are all underway.

The procurement process for the rolling stock have been launched. Plans for an initial three new stations are in progress. A shortlist of companies to run the West Coast Partnership – which will operate the first HS2 services – has been drawn up. Multi-billion pound engineering works contracts are soon to be awarded. The political case has been won but the public one has not.

Maynard, who still oversees the rail and accessibility portfolios, was addressing audience members at the High Speed Rail Industry Leader’s annual all-day conference at the Thinktank Birmingham Science Museum. It was a fitting location: Birmingham, the city from where HS2 will stem from and where HS2 Ltd is headquartered. Thinktank is situated across the road from the planned HS2 terminus on Curzon Street.

CHEERLEADERS

Around 140 industry leaders, political figures and delegates, compered by BBC Breakfast presenter, Steph McGovern, gathered to discuss the wider economic benefits of Britain’s second high-speed line. One key strand of debate – and what Maynard described as the ‘main challenge’ – centred on improving public support and the need for ‘cheerleaders’ – just without the pom poms.

‘The political case for this project has largely been won, but I know I have to keep on running it,’ said Maynard. ‘But we as a sector have to remember that while we may get excited about overhead wires, what actually matters is the change it can make to individuals lives,’ he added, touching on the impact high- speed has had on Bordeaux, Utrecht and Lille.

‘The main challenge is to ensure the public properly understand that HS2 is not just an engineering project, it isn’t just a way of delivery a very complicated piece of infrastructure, it’s about much more than that.

‘I am one of the cheerleaders for that but everyone in this room has to be as well.’

As well as the minister’s keynote speech, a number of industry figures shared their experiences and visions for HS2 – including a fast-paced PechaKucha-style presentation from the Young Rail Professionals on transforming passenger experience.

Paul Griffiths, HS2 Phase 2 development director, said that lessons could be learnt from Crossrail, which had done a ‘fantastic job’ in terms of selling the project’s benefits to the public, its ingenuity and the engineering that had gone on.

BENEFITS TO MANKIND

Adding to the narrative, Laing O’Rourke’s high-speed director, Nadia Savage, said that engineers are good at talking about moving so many million cubes of muck, or moving lifts so many 100ft high in the air, but were not so good about talking about ‘the benefits to mankind.’

‘I am an engineer, but I’m absolutely certain that the success of HS2 will not be measured by engineers it’ll be measured by economists, measuring the impact of the regeneration. So the jobs matter, the skills matter, the fact that we’ve created new opportunities in connecting people matters. And that’s what we need to work on, using language that connects with people, real-life people and isn’t dry, dull and boring.’

HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF JOBS

During peak construction HS2 will directly employ 25,000 workers, many of whom will be trained at the National College for High Speed Rail, but the impact afterwards would be ‘many, many’ times that number, said Maynard.

West Midlands’ mayor Andy Street – the former managing director of John Lewis – attended, as did his deputy Bob Sleigh. Sleigh predicted that 104,000 jobs, 2,000 apprenticeships and business opportunities for 700 companies will be created in the West Midlands’ area alone.

Further north, Maynard said 120,000 jobs and 100,000 homes could be supported in Cheshire and Staffordshire and 180,000 in Greater Manchester, where the estimated boost to the regional economy is £1.3 billion. Such a seismic change to the industry offers up the opportunity to ‘change the way the rail industry looks’ he added, to address the gender balance as well as other examples of diversity.

GOOGLE’S EUROPEAN HEADQUARTERS

Once the line is operational, Britain’s railway capacity will be boosted, being able to carry an extra 300,000 people every day and it is an attractive piece of infrastructure for business, according to HS1 chief executive Dyan Crowther. ‘Google is coming to the St Pancras/King’s Cross area, it’s putting its European headquarters there,’ she said. ‘Google’s not going there because of chance, it’s going there because of the high-speed connections and the regeneration that has occurred in the area.

‘Saint Martins College has moved to King’s Cross and the Olympics wouldn’t have come in 2012 if we didn’t have the high-speed route.

‘You walk around there now and it’s a buzzing place.’ But it’s not just about maximising the project’s potential in the UK. Will Roberts, High Speed Rail Industry Leaders director, said that the UK should have a generation of engineers that are capable and confident of building and running high-speed schemes around the world.

HS2 is no longer an ‘if’ but a ‘when’ and from the conference there was a clear message. There will be a plethora of opportunities and it’s about debating the positives, the possibilities and maximising its potential, to shift the expectations of what HS2 can do for Britain. Cheerleading starts here.

Written by Stewart Thorpe