Thursday, 11 April 2013

HS2: less spin, more substance

Destination Milton Keynes: direct services from Aylesbury are expected to begin by 2019. Credit: P Harrop
The headline is probably a touch naïve, as public relations and lobbying are an integral aspect of modern political life, for good or ill. But the recent spat over comments attributed to public relations firm Westbourne Communications and its Campaign for High Speed Rail have shone a light onto the shadowy world of lobbyists and ‘spin doctoring’ which inevitably swirls around government and major government-led projects.

According to Anna Minton’s report for Spinwatch, the primary source of the controversy is ‘an interview with [an unnamed] academic present at the March 2012 Penn Studio London workshop’ -- a somewhat flimsy basis for an apparently serious critique. Minton’s report goes on to list examples of what it calls ‘astroturfing’, before clarifying that:

‘Most of the activities of councils, developers and lobbyists are not actually illegal, although instances of planning meetings packed with actors and fake letter writing campaigns from non-existent supporters of controversial schemes are undoubtedly unethical.’

The clear inference to the reader is that such ‘fake’ tactics have been used by supporters of High Speed 2, yet there is no reference offered to substantiate this and no suggestion that the businesses and institutions cited as supports of CHSR were concocted.

I have attended a number of Westbourne’s events over the past couple of years, and I can state categorically that I personally never heard any language that could be described as remotely ‘militaristic’. Indeed, those looking for ‘militaristic’ connotations might do well to consider the ‘Downfall’ parody -- a tired cliché pedalled across YouTube, often by fans of rival football clubs. Sadly attempts by one HS2 opponent in Staffordshire to portray Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin as Hitler appear to have caused genuine offence. I’ll let readers assess whether such pranks are more or less ‘ethical’ than Westbourne’s alleged conduct.

However, my main reservation about these phoney wars is the reluctance to address many of the fundamentals of the debate. Westbourne’s James Bethell once acknowledged to me that discussing the rail capacity benefits of HS2 ‘does not have cut-through with commentariat’. The result is that the most compelling arguments for the project have too often been overlooked, perhaps because they do not sell papers. But that does not mean that the dire reliability of the West Coast Main Line outlined in the Gibb Report, the live threat to local stations from the incremental route upgrading approach, or the doubts about the capacity benefits of novel train control systems on ageing mixed-traffic railways aren’t each a matter of record. All these topics have been subject to analysis on this blog, as regular readers will be aware.

Surprisingly, when I suggested on social media that a less emotive dialogue that focussed on rail issues might benefit the HS2 debate, the High Speed Action Alliance didn’t seem too keen to join in. 'How annoying for you when the lies and deceits of pro lobby are publicised’, HSAA tweeted pettily in reply, before retweeting the supporting opinion of an anonymous blogger – so much for transparent campaigning then.

Indeed if HSAA are looking for ‘deceits’, they could start by looking closer to home. On March 29, HSAA’s colleagues at Stop HS2 produced a blogpost attempting, in tortuous fashion, to compare HS2 to the local rail cuts of the 1960s. Brazenly ignoring the glaring hypocrisy of raising the spectre of Beeching when alternatives to HS2 so clearly emperil thriving local rail stations such as Stone and Atherstone, Stop HS2’s author ‘Joe’ (presumably this is ubiquitous rent-a-quote Joe Rukin, though no surname is given – again, transparency) writes:

‘The worst part of this disjointed thinking is that without HS2 taking it over, Great Central could have a great future, providing an alternative route from Milton Keynes to London. With plans to reopen the East-West line, it would be simple to run trains along that line from Milton Keynes, which would then connect with Great Central and run into Marylebone via Aylesbury. Such a project would cheaply deliver the thing which HS2 does not, interconnectivity and local benefits.’

But like so much rail investment that that HSAA, Stop HS2 and their associates insist is precluded by HS2, a Milton Keynes – Aylesbury rail service is firmly on the agenda, and indeed is likely to come to fruition before HS2 thanks to the efforts of the East-West Rail consortium and Chiltern Railways. Indeed, a greater threat to ‘local connectivity’ would come from trying to path more London-centric inter-city services through Milton Keynes on an already saturated railway as an alternative to HS2, with a very real risk of capacity for local trains being squeezed out, even if an initial dedicated platform for EWR has been provided under recent remodelling of the station.

But ‘Joe’ isn’t done. He adds:

‘The current plan is not for HS2 to use the Grand Central trackbed, but to skirt around it, constantly crossing the line, as HS2 is being engineered for a track speed on 250 mile/h, meaning it has to be much straighter and wider than previous lines.’

The term ‘track speed’ is meaningless, and historians of Brunel would surely quibble with the inference that his (initially broad-gauge, ergo ‘wider’) Great Western Railway wasn’t, for substantial distances, pretty straight. But if Stop HS2’s real problem is with railways growing, then they could again accuse East-West Rail, where much of the Oxford – Bletchley formation is to be redoubled and electrified for 100 mile/h running, resulting inevitably in a more substantial physical footprint. Perhaps the group could just rebrand as Stop EWR?

Deceit? Maybe, maybe not. Scaremongering? Yes. Hypocrisy? Without doubt.

I suspect, like so much material put out by the multi-faceted PR machine that HS2 opponents would like us to believe does not exist, they hope the general public in the well-heeled shires where such material is (mostly) disseminated will not bother to check primary sources. Indeed, this is precisely the sort of sleight of hand that Stop HS2 and its acolytes routinely accuse HS2 Ltd and government of committing.

In any undertaking on the size and scale of HS2, controversy is sure to ensue; spin, scaremongering and sanctimony follow not far behind. Substance should shape the debate going forward.

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