UK business has an urgent need for speed

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Infrastructure projects around the world suffer from early teething problems. Some also face unanticipated cost pressures that need to be brought under control. It is unfortunate, however, that opponents of the HS2 scheme will use these stories to argue – yet again – for cancellation of a scheme that is crucial to Britain's long-term competitiveness.

Business communities across the United Kingdom back High Speed 2 for a clear and practical reason. The simple fact is that Britain's railway network, which has seen record passenger and freight use in recent years, is running out of capacity. Without HS2, which would treble capacity, overcrowding will get worse, fares will rise, and delays will become even more common.

Think back to the disruption and astronomical expense incurred during the "make do and mend" upgrade of the West Coast Main Line. That project proved that sticking-plaster solutions on a 19th-century network simply cannot deliver the capacity needed for a 21st-century economy.

Chambers of commerce around the country continue to back the development of a full, national high-speed rail network without further delay. As with any infrastructure project, they want to see it delivered on time, on budget, and complemented by sustained investment in conventional rail and road infrastructure. That would ensure that business communities everywhere continue to get good-quality connections both for passengers and freight, whether on a high-speed line or not.

The never-ending debate over HS2, however, is symptomatic of a far wider problem. Britain's business infrastructure is undermined by short-term political thinking, a sclerotic planning process that privileges the status quo over progress, and levels of uncertainty that lead many potential investors to take their money elsewhere.

We could learn a thing or two from Thailand. There, a $12bn high-speed rail project was put out to tender a few weeks ago. Amazingly, the whole project is set to be completed before the end of the decade.

Britain needs major infrastructure projects like HS2 to remain an attractive destination for investment and employment. Otherwise, we'll be a quiet backwater on the fringes, rather than at the heart, of the global economy. It's as simple as that.

Dr Adam Marshall is director of policy and external affairs at the British Chambers of Commerce (www.britishchambers.org.uk)

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