Contractors have welcomed government backing for the £32.7 billion High Speed Two rail network but have underlined the importance of reform if the project is to avoid high-profile problems.
Transport secretary Justine Greening approved the London to Birmingham leg of the scheme on Tuesday, paving the way for a start in 2016 on the UK’s biggest infrastructure project since the construction of the motorways.
In a bid to overcome vocal opposition to the line - not least from Tory backbenchers whose rural constituencies will be intersected by the route - Ms Greening unveiled a series of alterations to the design that include extensive extra tunnelling works (see box).
The measures are expected to dampen some opposition to the project, but industry concerns abound about the true cost, timescale and level of scrutiny such a complex scheme may entail.
Construction Products Association economics director Noble Francis said: “If we look at the recent history of major rail projects such as Crossrail and Thameslink then it is likely that it will be substantially delayed and cost more than initially anticipated - the cost is at 2011 prices - especially given that it is proving to be highly contentious already.”
Civil Engineering Contractors Association director of external affairs Alasdair Reisner said the project represented a “phenomenal opportunity”.
“It has the potential to show the world the quality of the UK infrastructure sector but to achieve this it will require the very best of practices, taking on board the reforms that have been discussed and driven by Infrastructure UK,” he said.
Past president of the Institution of Civil Engineers and chair of the infrastructure steering committee Peter Hansford said he was confident the government would take on the lessons of the IUK cost study - the catalyst for which was HS2 - and apply them to the project.
“We have sound ideas for improvement in a range of areas including project governance, management of risk and contingency and procurement practice,” he said.
“Early and constructive engagement of the whole supply chain will maximise the value that the civil engineering industry brings to this project.”
Contractors keen to win work on the project also emphasised the importance of getting the procurement process right.
Managing director of Galliford Try’s rail business Steve Walsh said: “The immediate priority now is for HS2 to give serious consideration to an early contractor involvement approach, which we feel will lead to the most affordable and buildable solution.”
But privately some contractors questioned whether the business case was too tight - government estimates a return through fares of £34bn over 60 years.
“Right from the start there needs to be a reality check on whether this is deliverable,” said one. “This could turn into a disaster project if we aren’t realistic about how much it will cost and how long it will take.”
Despite this week’s ministerial backing the project still faces significant hurdles until work gets under way.
Rob Holden, who led the construction of High Speed Rail 1 - the Channel Tunnel Rail Link - and is now its chairman, said the process would be a “long and tortuous” one.
“The continuing support of the Prime Minister is essential - critical to achieving the next steps. Delay is my biggest concern,” he said.
The government will now start work on a parliamentary bill to allow construction on the £17bn first phase as early as 2016.
Legal challenges and public petitions are expected to slow the bill’s passage, with around 30 Conservative backbenchers expected to rebel.
The £70m contract for a development partner to help shape the procurement process is due to be awarded this month.
Atkins/Mace, CH2M Hill, Parsons Brinkerhoff and Turner & Townsend have all been shortlisted for the role.
Up to 19 firms will be appointed to a £350m design and consultancy framework for the route.
The winner of the development partner contract will be banned from bidding for major detailed design packages.
Formal consultations on the second phase of the scheme - the Y-shaped extensions to Manchester and Leeds and a spur to Heathrow airport - will begin this year.
Contractors in the North are keen to see progress on phase two of the project, which is expected to generate substantial benefits.
Henry Boot Construction managing director Simon Carr said: “[This] is only the first step and it is important that approval is given as soon as possible for the ongoing Y connection to Yorkshire and Lancashire.”
Route changes to appease protesters
The length of the line in tunnels or green tunnels has been increased by over 50 per cent, to around 22.5 miles.
In addition, around 56.5 miles of the 140-mile route will be partially or totally hidden in cutting, and the amount on viaduct or embankment has been reduced. This means that well over half of the route would be mitigated by a tunnel or cutting.
Changes include: a longer, continuous tunnel from Little Missenden to the M25 through the Chilterns; a 2.75-mile bored tunnel along the Northolt Corridor to avoid major works to the Chilterns Line and impacts on the Ruislip area; a longer green tunnel past Chipping Warden and Aston Le Walls, and a curved route to avoid a cluster of important heritage sites; a longer green tunnel to reduce impacts around Wendover, and an extension to the green tunnel at South Heath.
For more details see www.dft.gov.uk/highspeedrail