310_hs2

Sir David Higgins, nonexecutive chair of HS2 Ltd., speaking at a ULI Europe event.

The chairman of the High Speed 2 (HS2) transport project says that one of his “major challenges” in managing the multibillion-pound north–south rail link is to convince the public of its benefits.

The HS2 Rail Network, which will connect four of the United Kingdom’s largest cities, has a £42 billion (US$66 billion) price tag.

Sir David Higgins, nonexecutive chair of HS2 Ltd., said that despite the U.K.’s “obvious problems” with capacity issues across the rail network, the public does not make the connection between what they experience on a daily basis and how proposed projects such as HS2 can alleviate them.

“They don’t see the connection. In other words, we have failed to spell out the benefits to go alongside their perception of the costs. We have failed to answer the fundamental question: why,” he told the ULI Real Estate Trends Conference 2015 in London recently.

“That has been the challenge we have faced at HS2: showing not just how a high-speed rail linking north and south, as well as the Midlands, will not just provide a better transport service, but also addressing the fundamental issue in this country: the disparity between the experience of London and the rest of the county,” he added.

The cost of developing the 351-mile (565 km) line between London and Leeds has been a much-debated issue, amid fears the budget is increasing. Higgins’s comments also came just days before the head of the British advocacy group Tax Payers’ Alliance, Jonathan Isaby, said that HS2 is “cannibalizing” the rest of the U.K.’s transport budget.

Higgins was appointed to HS2 Ltd., the public body responsible for developing the project’s proposals, in 2013. He was charged with reducing the costs of the railway, following his successful delivery of infrastructure for London’s 2012 Olympics as chief executive of the U.K.’s Olympic Delivery Authority.

He explained that HS2 will help narrow the gap between economic prosperity in the north and south of the United Kingdom.

London, he said, is a huge global success story, but “an unsustainable pressure-cooker” with house prices that are the second most expensive in the world and commercial property that has become the most expensive in the world.

Higgins said that, by contrast, much of the north is underdeveloped and subsidized, and that leading graduates and companies “too often” feel they had to be located in the south of England to be successful.

“That is a waste both for London and for the Midlands and the north. For both, it means they are less productive, but also less satisfying places to work and live than they could be.

“And getting people to make that connection—between the central strategic challenge we face as a country, and the impact on their daily lives—both of the problems, and of HS2 as one element of the answer—is one of the major tasks we face as a company,” he said.

Construction of HS2 is expected to begin in 2017. When complete, the network will reduce journey times between the U.K. capital and Birmingham to 49 minutes.

The government, which has warned that the British rail network is almost at capacity, estimates the new line could transfer 4.5 million journeys a year from the air and 9 million from the roads. According to current plans, passenger services connecting London and Birmingham will commence in 2026.

Infrastructure projects worldwide repeatedly face the same difficulties, Higgins went on to explain.

“Worthwhile projects get proposed, and even designed, and then postponed, delayed, or even canceled,” he said.

Such projects have to compete with all the other commitments and obligations that modern society places on governments, he said. “Capital projects have to compete not just against each other, but also immediate demands—whether it is the health service or housing benefits.”

But Higgins pointed out the need for collective action to get major infrastructure projects underway in order to get the U.K.’s productivity in line with that of other European nations.

He said that one of the reasons that the United Kingdom lags behind continental Europe, in terms of productivity, is the “poor state” of its infrastructure.

“We all lose from that. We all—in one way or another—pay the price for that. None of us benefits,” he said.

Higgins said that it is crucial to recognize what has gone wrong in the past.

“It is easy to blame the politicians. To say they lack the political will—and focus on short-term electoral gain. And, sometimes, that is fair. But more often, that short-termism is only possible because the long-term case for infrastructure hasn’t been made—either clearly enough, or repeatedly enough, or with sufficient confidence to give politicians a firm platform to stand on.”