Another hurdle

29 October 2015

In a trip to China, the UK’s chancellor George Osborne has been trying to spark interest in High Speed Two (HS2) investment opportunities. Some GBP 24bn (USD 36.5bn) was laid out for the consideration of potential spenders at an event in Chengdu, the capital of Southwest China’s Sichuan province. Osborne tweeted from the event: “Today we open bidding process for HS2 construction with contracts worth 11.8bn. A milestone in a project key to Britain's future.”

The visit by Osborne is timed to precede an October state visit to the UK by Chinese president Xi Jinping.

'Great Northern Leaders' (northern City Councilors) also joined Osborne on the trip to show their interest and enthusiasm for what they see as a vital project and potential boost to their regions. The visit also took in trips on the country's vast high-speed rail network for inspiration and a bit of symbolism.

The Chancellor was immediately and predictably criticised by anti-HS2 campaigners, as Parliament has yet to approve the scheme. Although at the time of writing, it looks like both major political parties will back the project.

The manager of the Stop HS2 campaign Joe Rukin said: "The Chinese way of doing things certainly seems to be rubbing off on George Osborne, as he has decided to start a GBP 12bn bidding process without any democratic mandate to do so, as Parliamentary approval of HS2 is still at least a year away."

Penny Gaines, chair of Stop HS2 added: "There are very real concerns over these plans to encourage Chinese firms to bid for such large HS2 construction contracts. What is really key is that HS2 does not have the go ahead now for construction and HS2 will never have the go ahead unless the HS2 Hybrid Bill, currently being scrutinised by Members of Parliament, passes the third reading and gets Royal Assent."

People have been speaking more and more about the change in public opinion towards infrastructure projects in general in this part of the world.

The BBC's three-part Crossrail documentary released the other year is often cited as a big part of that, and some of these lessons are being taken abroad.

Anecdotally, tunnelling in particular is becoming more popular. In a letter to Tunnels and Tunnelling (see August issue, page 7) consultant Bill Grose told the story of a exchange between rugby players and young tunnellers in a bar after a day of lectures during the BTS Design and Construction Course.

The rugby players were fascinated to meet tunnel engineers, and Grose called it "a tipping point in the street cred of tunnellers".

I saw a later exchange, however. One of the rugby players asked an engineer which project she was working on. When he heard that it was HS2, he walked away in annoyance.

The industry should not get complacent with its recent public relations successes. The fact remains that a lot of the public do not want to see the start of work on HS2, and are not afraid to make themselves heard.