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HS2 needs to keep its house in order

Jack Simpson

“The challenge for the next 12 months is improving the public image,” HS2 chief executive Mark Thurston told me when I interviewed him back in March.

The focus was on starting to build that credibility, he added.

If the first five months of the year was about rebuilding public trust in HS2, last month saw a bulldozer ram straight through that work.

In June both the Financial Times and the Sunday Times ran stories claiming that HS2 had underestimated the cost of purchasing land and property for phase one of the line by nearly £2bn.

HS2 dismissed the claims and stuck by its £2.8bn estimate.

Nevertheless, Mr Thurston has once again been left dealing with the fallout from stories relating to a time before he joined.

Against the backdrop, some fresh faces could not come at a better time.

Sir David Higgins, a man who carries quite a few battle scars from his four years as chair, is to step down in August.

He will be replaced by Sir Terry Morgan, who should represent a safe pair of hands having overseen the delivery of Crossrail.

HS2 is also expecting to announce a CFO and COO very soon.

However, the past few days have suggested that HS2’s problems are not only stuck in the past.

After a series of high-profile procurement issues last year, this week has seen questions resurface over its bidding processes.

It is not often a supplier would feel sufficiently aggrieved to take a procurement decision to the High Court, particularly against a client behind a major avenue of work.

But that’s exactly what Spanish train manufacturer CAF did, alleging that HS2 made errors during procurement for the £2.75bn rolling stock contract that breached UK and EU regulation. A look at the court papers reveals a long list of allegations and complaints.

More and more questions are also emerging over whether HS2 will stick to its programme and budget.

Confirmation from the Department for Transport that the start of civils has been delayed until June will put further pressure on the 2026 opening date.

It’s easy to forget that earlier this year this notice to proceed had been set for November 2018.

HS2 is adamant that the programme remains on track and within budget. However, speculation will mount as to the reasons for the civils delay.

Some may wonder whether contractors are starting to think they will not be able to make their designs work within HS2’s budget.

The £55.7bn project will be crucial for the UK and the industry. You only have to scan HS2’s Realising the Potential report today to see that.

The client has already supported 6,000 jobs, with 2,000 businesses delivering work towards the project. Those figures will soar when construction begins.

However, time and time again these high-profile stories and allegations of mistakes, delays and miscalculations surface.

As we move towards the main construction stage, it is vital that HS2 turns the tide of publicity. To that end, Mr Thurston needs to ensure his house is well and truly in order.

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