From enmity to eminence: The inevitable journey of infrastructure

Source: RTM Aug/Sep 17

Sir David Higgins, chairman of HS2 Ltd, discusses the enduring importance of infrastructure – putting HS2 in context of the Grade 1 listed Humber Bridge, comparing and contrasting how the bridge was first seen, and how essential it is now.

This summer, a huge piece of infrastructure – desperately needed to grow the local economy, but seen as too expensive, too ambitious, too disruptive – was finally recognised for its greatness over 30 years after it opened and was given Grade 1 listed status. At the same time, a huge piece of infrastructure – desperately needed to grow the local economy, but seen as too expensive, too ambitious, too disruptive – took a huge step forward in its delivery, awarding contracts, confirming routes and setting out its ambition for local communities. 

When seen separately, the fate of the Humber Bridge and HS2 are two interesting events in the world of transport and construction, but when seen together they perfectly encompass the journey of infrastructure projects in this country. 

For over 100 years, overcoming the challenge of people on the north and south banks of the Humber wanting to get to the other side was wrestled with by civic leaders. Options of tunnelling under the river, more ferry services, and different kinds of bridges offered repeated false dawns. 

It wasn’t until in 1959 that, finally, the bridge was given the go-ahead – against cries of “it’s too expensive”, “it’s not needed” and “it can’t be done”. Just over two decades later the bridge was completed and opened by the Queen in 1981. Ever since, those that opposed it can’t seem to remember why, and it’s become such an integral part of day-to-day life that people can’t even conceive what they would do without it. If you want to see public anger, you just need to see people’s reaction when the bridge is closed and they have to find another route. 

But, since its inception in the late 50s, the bridge was always designed to be more than just a way to get from A to B. For years it was the longest single span suspension bridge in the world and, over time, became the iconic symbol of the region, and the engineering point of national pride it is today. 

As we look at some of the negative reactions to announcements made about HS2 recently, the parallels between it and the history of the Humber Bridge become very real. 

In this country, we seem to have an inherent distrust of large infrastructure projects. The Olympics was a vanity project until the regeneration of an abandoned part of East London became real and the gold medals of Team GB started to flow. Crossrail was a waste of money at the height of austerity, but now is seen as an incredible feat of engineering and a much-needed addition to London’s transport system. And the Humber Bridge was too difficult and would take too long to build, but now people in Hull, East Yorkshire and North East Lincolnshire couldn’t imagine life without it. 

All of these criticisms have been levelled at HS2 over the years and indeed just in the past few weeks. A vanity project, a waste of money, too far off to make a real difference – in a world where we expect immediacy in almost everything we do, it’s easy to see why projects that require long-term investment and vision are viewed with scepticism.   

But as a country it is our long-termism and vision that has defined us. From Brunel’s railways to Tim Berners-Lee’s internet, our ability to not only lead the world with our vision, but our ability to build for the long term, means that what we have created as a country has not only stood the test of time; it has defined our future and continues to do so. 

This is what I see when HS2 is completed. 

c. hutchyb


Yes, it’s a project that will better connect our major cities and increase capacity on the railway. It will allow millions of people to get to meetings with new clients, bring family members closer to a home on the other side of the country and ease congestion on our railways and roads. 

But a project with the foresight and ambition of HS2 will do so much more. It will rebalance our economy, spreading the success of our capital to cities in the north of England, and it will define engineering in our country for decades to come. The scale of the engineering challenge is huge. Brand new stations, huge viaducts and bridges. They all provide an opportunity for Britain to show that it can still do big and ambitious engineering projects. We also saw the firms looking to design the new HS2 stations. They include companies that designed the Reichstag, the Pompidou Centre, and the Gateshead Millennium Bridge. The ambition is there and the talent is here in this country, we just need to get behind it and allow them to do it. 

Obviously, there is an impact on local communities and those who will lose their homes have a right to be angry – I doubt I would be positive about a railway if it was running through my house. These people need to be treated well, and compensated for their loss and the disruption to their lives. But there are many more who object to infrastructure because of the very nature of construction on this scale – it costs a lot, it takes years to deliver and when it’s designed with a vision for the future it’s hard to see its value at present.  

But if the recent weeks teach us anything it’s that industry, invention and engineering are at the heart of our country, and that we do eventually see its value. From enmity to eminence: the journey of infrastructure. Some begin at the destination, for some it takes a while to get there – my hope for HS2 is the lessons of the Humber Bridge mean we get there a little sooner this time.

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Ian Watkins   07/09/2017 at 19:53

Large infrastructure projects are great and it's good to demonstrate our engineering prowess (although I think Berners-Lee was working in Switzerland when he came up with the web) but many HS2-sceptics suspect that more capacity could have been added to the network for less money and less disruption and thereby added better value to peoples daily use of the railway.

Chrism   08/09/2017 at 00:31

And many of those same armchair sceptics Ian were completely clueless about how incredibly difficult and expensive it would be to eke out even a bit more capacity from the patchwork of twisty Victorian lines that make up the West Coast Main Line. Most of them I bet don't even use our railways and so have no collective memory or insight into what happened between 1998 and 2008 when that railway was last subject to a major rebuild and upgrade scheme. It did not go well, it was delayed for years and cost the taxpayer many more £billions than expected - and the end result wasn't half as good as what was originally promised. As Einstein may (or may not) have said "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result".

George Chmielewski   08/09/2017 at 11:54

I agree that new ideas like the Humber Bridge and Crossrail had opposition, but when finally built, one cannot live without them. HS2 will disrupt the environment and I don't possess enough expertise or awareness of what is going into minimising the disruption. My personal encounter is that I am a volunteer at the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre. I am aware that competent persons on both sides are talking, as the Centre will be affected by HS2 in a few ways. Like all, I hope that being an opportunity for the country, the building of HS2 will really be an opportunity for the Railway Centre. Part of one of the fields will be taken away, and the easy access route from Waddesdon will be taken away. These are the negative effects in this instance. This is one of thousands of negative instances, so also I hope that this will be compensated in some sort or way. Not to mention the view to the south will change and the noise of passing trains every so often. Another example is the site of Finmere Station, host to a number of preserved historical railway vehicles, which will be swept away. Yet with the East West link, the area will be opened up to development which was dreamt of in the1930's when the Metropolitan Railway for this purpose, was extended into the area.

Dave   08/09/2017 at 11:58

For those that cannot remember the WCML upgade and want a more contemporary example of how "difficult" apparently "simple" upgrade projects can turn out to be, look no further than the current GWML electrification project.

Stratfan   08/09/2017 at 14:05

There is not one jot of evidence that it will rebalance the economy and may well do the opposite but never mind it's only taxpayers billions

Graham Nalty   09/09/2017 at 10:54

Ten years ago, I argued that one of the benefits of a south to north high speed rail will balance the economy, but now have very serious doubts. All the evidence shows that the larger city always benefits the most. Additionally HS2 is designed in a much more London - centric manner because of the adherence to cost benefit analyses that would not justified the Humber bridge on traffic volumes. The Humber bridge succeeds by linking communities that could not otherwise be linked. What is wrong with HS2 is that it does not appear to achieve anything like its full potential. It poorly connects to our international travel gateways. The 17 minute walk from HS2 at Euston to HS1 at St. Pancras is a disgrace. Modern airports such as Schipol and Frankfurt have their high speed trains call at the airport terminal, not at a remote location that needs another mode of transport between train and plane. There is a low more wrong with HS2 connectivity in the way HS2 Ltd. are doing their very best NOT to serve Stoke on Trent and Sheffield.

Ian Watkins   10/09/2017 at 18:24

Yes, it would be rather good to be able to get on a train in Birmingham and get off in Paris, but that doesn't seem as if it will be possible with HS2. And as far as I can tell, bad luck if you live in Coventry and commute to London.....

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