Douglas Oakervee: 'I think the name HS2 is unfortunate'

.... so says the boss of the high-speed rail project that faces new opposition almost daily. Can the 72-year-old stay positive, and stay on track? Mark Leftly meets Douglas Oakervee

Douglas Oakervee is introduced at industry dinners as having "come out of retirement more times than Frank Sinatra": on at least three occasions the 72-year-old Londoner told his wife that he would settle down to a life of building model railways.

But Oakervee is still constructing them for real, and he could spend the remainder of his eighth decade defending the most politically fraught project in Britain today: High Speed Two.

The Government is in fight-back mode after a horrendous summer. A £10bn leap in budget to £42.6bn led the former transport secretary and long-term supporter of the project, Alistair Darling, to declare himself an "HS2 sceptic". The Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, even threatened to derail the scheme's much-heralded cross-party support.

Last week, George Osborne said that he was "passionate" about an ultra-fast railway that will slash the journey time between London and Birmingham by about half an hour, to 49 minutes. It will also connect major cities in the North in a way that the Chancellor argues will change the "economic geography of this country". And the Department for Transport has kicked off September by attempting to debunk the "myths" of HS2, such as the assertion by the Institute of Economic Affairs that the project will end up costing £80bn.

Oakervee, the HS2 chairman, though, has been accused by rail industry insiders of being "Captain Invisible", having left the chief executive, Alison Munro, a career civil servant with little experience of dealing with hostile media, to face a grilling on the Today programme: "I want to know where he's been," says one. "There's quite a simple answer to that: I was on holiday, and Alison was here," says Oakervee, smartly dressed in a double-breasted navy-blue suit. "I was in Hong Kong, so it was a bit difficult to get about."

Hong Kong is where Oakervee made his name, notably overseeing the construction of the then-British territory's £6bn airport on a man-made island. In recent years, though, he has become better known in the country of his birth for steering the Crossrail project, the east-to-west London rail line.

That experience is why the Department for Transport chased Oakervee with a five-year-contract, with an option for five more, last year, despite the fact that he is "rapidly approaching" 73 and fretting that Sir David Frost passed away at only a year older. By the time the first phase of HS2 is built, Oakervee will be 84; when it is extended in a Y-shaped route to Manchester and Leeds, he will be in his nineties.

The parliamentary High Speed Rail Bill will be a record-breaker when it is handed to the Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, later this year. It is "by far the biggest that's ever been done", Oakervee claims, weighing in at a quarter of a ton, with more than 50,000 pages of environmental analysis alone.

The scale of the job probably explains why some of his 400 staff describe the father of five as "grumpy". Another reason would be the continual criticism of HS2's costs, which include budget-busting consultancy fees that critics say the country can ill afford in a supposed age of austerity.

Oakervee admits "concern" that Alistair Darling, his boss from the Crossrail days, has turned against HS2, but is damning of what he describes as "a lot of wild speculation". "[Ed Balls] is entitled to his opinion," he says. "The most important thing is that HS2 forms the backbone of the UK rail network for the future.

"It would be catastrophic for the UK actually [if HS2 were cancelled]. What it is going to mean is that the services on the West Coast Mainline initially and East Coast Mainline will rapidly deteriorate. We estimate on the mainline up to Birmingham that for every 10 people seated there will be 10 standing, and you get the same pattern having developed to Manchester by the mid-2020s or 2030."

HS2's team is focusing on this capacity argument now, having abjectly failed to win over the public by wowing them with ultra-aerodynamic nose-coned vehicles that could match the 275mph reached by Japanese bullet trains.

Oakervee laments the name of HS2, first floated by the Labour government in 2009: "I always think the most unfortunate thing was the name, because that gave a 'rise' to the high-speed [part]. The media also chose to promote the speed side, rather than listen to the more mundane side of it. Yes, you can always do things differently; and yes, you can always do things better. Whether we went the right way is questionable."

What Oakervee argues should be stressed is the fact that even cities such as Newcastle and Coventry, which aren't on the proposed line, will benefit from the first two phases of HS2, because it will provide the links that will help to develop their local economies. Without HS2, Oakervee claims, "as a country, we're going to start deteriorating quite rapidly".

Oakervee paints a grim picture of a future without HS2, but the well-organised opposition groups have been damning about the scheme's business case. Claims that anywhere between 100,000 and 400,000 jobs will be created by it are exaggerated, they say, and the benefits to the North are arguable, as it will simply encourage more trips to London.

HS2 has certainly brought Oakervee to London, where he spends a few nights each week with his daughter, an editor on Waitrose's customer magazine, rather than return to his home in Newmarket. But he describes HS2's opponents as a "quite vociferous small minority" who have ambushed the campaign with the "most outrageous claims" on Twitter.

There are, in fact, 50,000 people signed up to the Stop HS2 mailing list and 108,000 people backed a petition against the scheme submitted to No 10 before stage two was even announced. Around half a million people are also said to be affected by HS2's construction, though Oakervee calls on them to "look at the overall benefits to the UK economy".

He makes several assertions without providing much evidence to substantiate his claims. For example, he claims the consultants' fees, which The Independent on Sunday revealed earlier this year, were in excess of their initial budgets, well before their contracts had come to an end, are "still within" HS2's own estimates.

He also makes the rather bold claim that HS2 has "underspent" in quite a few areas. Asked to explain, he says the details are "commercially privileged", and glares back: "I've said, we're underspent."

What he forgets is that it is difficult to take HS2's word on costs as gospel. Earlier this year, the organisation continually denied it had any IT problems. It was only when presented with its own board minutes proving that its systems were plagued by flaws that Alison Munro conceded it was an area "under review".

And in an interview last year, Oakervee predicted that the business case by the end of 2013 would show that every pound spent on HS2 would generate between £2 and £3 for the wider economy. That figure is still stuck at £1.70, much the same as the time of the prediction.

Which is what makes a caveat to Oakervee's final claim, that he is "confident we will keep within" the £42.6bn budget, so interesting: "I don't think JC [Jesus Christ] can even guarantee anything." The Messiah would certainly struggle to predict whether or not Oakervee can put the Government's dreams of building an economy around a high-speed rail line back on track.

Curriculum vitae

1940 Born and brought up in northwest London, and goes on to attend Willesden Technical College.

1970 Aged 30, a year after the first of his five children are born, Oakervee has his first taste of management, overseeing construction of tunnels for Dublin's Grand Canal drainage project.

1975 Moves to Hong Kong to work on its new underground network. Spends a quarter of a century working in the now former colony.

1982 Sets up Oakervee Perrett and Partners, which later becomes one of the key designers of the extension to London Underground's Jubilee Line.

1991 Leads the construction of Hong Kong airport, for which he wins several prestigious awards, including the Institution of Civil Engineers' Gold Medal.

2003 Appointed 139th president of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

2005 Tasked with overseeing the legislation for the east-to-west London Crossrail link through Parliament.

2010 Appointed a CBE in the Queen's birthday honours list for "services to civil engineering".

2011 Becomes chairman of the Lighthouse Club, a construction industry charity that provides help to workers and their families during times of hardship.

2012 Appointed chairman of HS2.

Lotte Morley

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