Opinion: HS2 | Martin Stockley

As the government hints at backing this controversial project, a once in a generation infrastructure investment, we caught up with Martin Stockley – engineer and deputy chair of the HS2 independent design review panel.

Describe HS2 in three/five words

Essential infrastructure investment.

Why? Do you think the country needs HS2?

We have never had a planned National Rail Network. Virtually all of our railways were built by private entrepreneurs to join them to their markets and to benefit their shareholders and industries. HS2 is designed to join and benefit places and for people to move between those places. It’s aims are entirely publicly driven. It has the potential to become the core to a 21st/22nd century transport system. Our regional cities are poorly connected to each other and to the  World city and major economic resource that is London. HS2 and Northern Powerhouse rail can begin to resolve that.

Can you tell us a little about the role of the HS2 Design review panel?

We are a selected panel with expertise covering all aspects of design. As well as engineers, architects and construction specialists, members have backgrounds in arts, sustainability, ecology, social sciences etc. We provide an independent means (unconstrained by client/designer/contractor relationships) by which design teams are challenged, questioned and encouraged towards high quality design.

Is HS2 good value for money – or is it a vanity project?

All infrastructure is an investment and to think about it in purely cost terms is to misunderstand the objectives of the work. It is our money spent on our land specifically to benefit us. Converting 19th century railways to serve 21st century needs is complex, disproportionately costly and at best produces an improved but still compromised and problematic non-network. HS2 is a very pragmatic piece of railway designed to greatly increase capacity on both strategic and local routes. The national value of infrastructure can’t be undermined by individuals choosing to extract some vanity from the outcome.

The Green Party & XR have been vocal in their opposition to HS2 on the grounds of destruction of ancient woodland. What is your view on this?

There isn’t any way to feel OK about the loss of ancient and established ecology. But, there is a context to our current situation.  HS2 hasn’t reduced our ancient woodland to the limited resource that it is today. Historically that resource was used for the benefit of defence/war, commerce and housing as well as road and rail.  None of these aimed to improve future ecology. Planned, well designed, publicly focussed railways like HS2 put ecological sustainability at the heart of the project. We can’t give up just because of past mistakes. We have to correct our mistakes where possible.

Who will get the most benefit out of HS2?

HS2 benefits all. We need strategic and local routes. Combining these, as now, means slow, low-capacity for both. Trains need time and space to cross each other. Local routes need to stop regularly to serve local needs. For strategic routes speed means more trains/hour and therefore greater capacity.

You’re based in the north of England, is the perception of HS2 different there?

I can’t speak for others but all UK cities have had to battle to recover and move on from the national crisis of post-industrialisation. London’s world status and financial centre have been of great benefit to London and nationally but London is poorly connected to our regional cities. To bring external money to a place you have to connect with that external money. Transport is a major part of that connection. It allows people to invest their lives in regional cities and still benefit from the combined national and global economy. Without good connections you have to relocate.

We’ve had HS1, HS2 & HS3 are in the pipeline. Is this the end of the line for railway mega-projects or do you see a future for HS4?

What is the alternative? Human history is one of migration. We are a socio-cultural and migratory species. The question is how do we move ourselves sustainably? Railways have not yet reached their full potential, they are relatively straightforward to fuel sustainably and are highly efficient in capacity terms.