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David Higgins: 'HS2 can't be another compromise'

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In an exclusive interview with the AJ, High Speed 2 executive chairman and former Olympics chief David Higgins talks about the challenges of bringing a new rail link into Euston, design competitions and building ‘without compromise’

Where are you finding the support strongest for HS2?
The North, from the Midlands to the M62 corridor. It has strong business support. People ultimately see this as jobs for the next generation. People realise that transport infrastructure is important.

There have been calls for a competition for the proposed Colne Valley Viaduct in Buckinghamshire? Is there more scope for design competitions for HS2 projects?
What we’ve learned from international benchmarking is that standardisation is a huge benefit. If you can standardise bridges, viaducts, embankments or abutments then you get economies of scale.

People may not realise that the Olympic Village is standardised. All the carcasses of all the buildings are done on a standard design and the facades are given to entirely different architectural firms to do details.

It doesn’t mean you can’t do the Colne Valley Viaduct in a way that reflects the local vernacular. But we know our viaduct budget is high compared with European standards, and we have got to understand why they can be designed and delivered so much more cheaply in Europe.

Can you explain what is going on at Euston – the London terminus for HS2?
Euston is incredibly complex. It is past its use-by date and is not something we’d want in 20 or 30 years’ time.

Euston has to undergo extensive redevelopment because it is no longer fit for purpose. Even for its existing patronage it doesn’t work. It has asbestos, serious issues about congestion and safety, and it’s going to get worse and worse.

However we have to be patient and build a consensus. It will mean working with the leader of Camden Council, Sarah Hayward, and ultimately the community because when you do get that consensus, such as at King’s Cross, you get public acceptance of what is the right solution.

What is before Parliament is a bill to build a station next to Euston, which is just for High Speed 2. People have rightfully said: well, how does that relate to the existing station? So, before the end of the year we will lodge an additional provision on the design of Euston.

This will not solve all of Euston’s problems, nor impose a solution on the community and local authority, but it will build in future flexibility and include all options, such as the future knock-down of Euston, burying it underground, and how it ties into Crossrail 2. It futureproofs the entire site.

What we’re not doing is saying: here is this high rise and here is this tower and this is what will be over the station. As we start to talk to the community we understand what the community wants.

What are your initial thoughts on what they may want?
That the community wants to know where the public space will be and whether we are going to replace what is currently a damn great block that sits in a community and breaks it apart.

You’ve got a throat [set of rail lines] that segregates communities. Will this new development reknit the community and reinstate the lines of public access through the station?  That is what we should achieve.

What’s noticeable at the moment is that there is no community centre. Where do people shop? Where do they go to the cinema? Where do they buy things? While our plan initially addresses the 45 acres [18ha] of Euston, it must be part of a much broader plan to address that.

That needs time to get it right, and we have plenty of time, because for the public to put up with the disruption they have to know they have the right solution at the end of it.

With regards to disruption, there are reports that it will take to 2046. How are you going to deal with that?
It’s not going to take until 2046, but there is going to be a trade off at some point between disruption and time.

I remember French engineers visiting Crossrail at Farringdon, and they said: ‘Why are you so patiently looking to maintain the whole station and keep this open?

‘What we would do is build a new station over there, shut this, knock it down and relocate. We wouldn’t go through this tedious aggressive incremental process.’

What was your answer?
Well, I said we have different approaches to heritage and public engagement and consultation.

The time it takes to redevelop Euston, say, depends on what level of disruption you are prepared to ask the travelling or commuting public to put up with. You can say to them, there will be more inconvenience in the short term and we can do it quicker.  We could have said we would shut London Bridge for 18 months, or we can work around you but it will cost more and take longer.

It’s like the Olympics, where we said: don’t try and travel by car into London and think it will be easy; it’s going to be horrible. It’s demand management.

What can be done to make sure that HS2 does stand the test of time?
What we can’t do is build another compromise. We have had this incremental patch and mend approach which I have lived with in the railways [Higgins was formerly Network Rail CEO].

We spent a massive amount of money patching up a  Victorian network. It is soul destroying for staff, who are out every night with limited access to the track, trying to keep a network going that gets a bigger pounding than anything else in Europe. So what a luxury to be able to build and maintain a state-of-the-art system.

It’ll add so much resilience to the network to know that when a train gets on this track, it’s going to go and it’s not going have power blackouts, or have problems with wind or leaves.

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Readers' comments (2)

  • As a member of the community in Euston I wish to state that we have been trying to engage with HS2 for over 3 years now - their meetings are a dreadful waste of time, there is no / little information and no-one listens to us. This is patently true of Mr Higgins, who has never come to any meetings, and obviously does not know anything about Euston station or the surrounding area and many communities. No Euston does not have a centre - because it is a massive station! But there are centres around it at Chalton Street, Drummond Street, Camden High Street etc. I have never read such complete rubbish - and I am a trained architect!

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  • HS2 is a compromised design from the outset. It is not a mesh liking all major cities to each other. It is a line running back to London that only links the centres of FOUR cities. A major conurbation, the Liverpool City Region of a round 2.2 million is left off despite HS2 track being only 20 miles away.

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