Sir David Higgins has moved quickly to diffuse political tension surrounding high Speed 2 just days after his appointment as chairman of hS2 Ltd was announced.
Higgins steps down as Network Rail’s Chief Executive next April but will join HS2 Ltd on 1st January 2014, going full time from April. Mark Carne, former executive vice president of Royal Dutch Shell, takes over as CEO of Network Rail in April.
Sir David has been a long term supporter of high speed railways and spelled out in confident terms the importance of HS2. ‘People forget, I started (on the Olympics) in late 2005. In 2006, there was not a single positive bit of media coverage. It was all about this will never be done, the budget is ridiculous, it can’t be done, we’ll be embarrassed about what’s going to happen about it… It took about two years for the first green shoots to emerge.’
Higgins met Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, requesting he be allowed to brief Labour Party leaders and avoid HS2 becoming a political football. Higgins wants to get all sides to back the scheme. ‘As I did in the Olympics, I (now) have the right to brief opposition and government both at a local and national level.’
HS2 will serve as an economic dynamo for the economy and represents the next installment in Britain’s revitalised and fast growing rail industry. ‘While we do have the safest railway in Europe, we also have the oldest railway in Europe, and the growth rates here far outstrip any other utility in the UK and any other railway in Europe. So, it’s essential for economic growth in this country to have a proper modern railway,’ Higgins added.
The move to HS2 Ltd caps a successful career for Sir David Higgins, the Australian farmer’s son from Brisbane in north Queensland who, as a child, watched steam engines thundering through farmland near where he lived.
He read civil engineering at university in Sydney and later worked in Africa on mining projects and airports. After a spell gem prospecting in Kenya he ran the Sydney Olympics, a role he reprised at the Olympic Delivery Authority in London.
Higgins has been a keen and long term supporter of high speed railways. Speaking in RailStaff two years ago he said, ‘90% of all long term journeys in France are by high speed rail. France already has 2,000 kilometres of high speed railways. And before we open High Speed Two they’ll have built another 1,000 kilometres of high speed rail.’
With remarkable prescience he also said, ‘Unless everyone’s vigilant it won’t go ahead so we have to be avid supporters of it.’ Current HS2 chairman, Doug Oakervee, will remain in post to oversee the introduction of the Government’s Hybrid Bill before the end of this year. The Bill will secure Parliamentary approval for Phase 1 of the route between London and Birmingham, allowing work to start in 2017.
Sir David also moved to calm fears of spiraling costs. ‘My first priority will be to rigorously scrutinise costs to ensure they remain under control,’ he said. ‘HS2 presents a strategic opportunity for this country and I am determined to make sure we take it by delivering a railway that will allow business and communities to prosper in the long term.’