The Government’s determination to press ahead with its £42.7bn high-speed rail project was laid bare when the man dubbed “Captain Invisible” was dumped as chairman in favour of the knight who led the construction of the London 2012 Olympic Park.
Sir David Higgins, who will earn almost £600,000 a year, will take up his new role in January at the start of a crunch period for a project whose business case and spiralling costs have been the subject of public and political scorn.
The Bill that David Cameron hopes will give him the sweeping powers necessary to build and operate HS2 will be presented to Parliament in November and debated throughout 2014. MPs along the proposed route have opposed the project because of fears among constituents about the likely environmental blight of a railway designed to cut journey times and expand a crowded network.
HS2’s current chairman Doug Oakervee will leave at the end of the year. He has endured a dreadful summer in which it has been claimed that the project could end up costing £80bn, while one-time supporters including former Chancellor Alistair Darling have had second thoughts about its merits.
Mr Oakervee, 72, who was criticised for failing to properly support chief executive Alison Munro, has dismissed HS2’s hundreds of thousands of opponents as a “quite vociferous small minority”.
Sir David’s appointment suggests that Mr Cameron and the Chancellor, George Osborne, are determined to win over the doubters. Sir David was awarded a knighthood for bringing in the Olympics under budget and on time following a difficult start that had seen costs wildly underestimated.
The Australian is currently chief executive at Network Rail, which looks after Britain’s existing rail infrastructure, and has been praised for restructuring and commercialising what has been viewed as a cumbersome, costly organisation.
He said: “HS2 is vital for both passengers and the economy and will put the UK in a different league in terms of infrastructure. My first priority will be to rigorously scrutinise costs to ensure they remain under control.”