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Rail News: High-Speed Rail

Strategies to build support for U.K. high-speed system can be replicated in U.S., U.K. HSR advocate says


In January, the United Kingdom government gave the green light to a $52 billion high-speed rail (HSR) project between London and Birmingham. Known as HS2, the project has been criticized by environmental groups, some area residents and some business leaders. Their concerns? Safety, project costs and environmental impacts.

Sound familiar?

With similar opposition to HSR mounting in the United States, the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association yesterday hosted a webcast featuring James Bethell, director of Westbourne Communications, who has overseen a campaign aimed at garnering support for HSR in the U.K. Formed early last year, the Campaign for High Speed Rail represents employers throughout the country that support HSR, and is not affiliated with the federal government or project developer HS2 Ltd.

Bethell shared the campaign’s strategy, which raised public awareness and addressed opposition. The strategies can be adapted for U.S. HSR supporters, since the United States’ HSR projects are facing similar criticism — although HSR in the U.K. does at least have cross-party support, Bethell said.

“Our role was to try to normalize the debate,” he said. “The exaggerations about the money and the effect on the environment were all out of proportion, and the industry felt ill-placed to stand up for itself because of the apparent self interest. And those who did want to show their support for high-speed rail — it wasn’t top on their list of things to do on a Monday morning.”

The Campaign for High Speed Rail was able to help in that area. Campaign leaders began by recruiting business leaders, civil leaders, rail industry experts, parliamentarians, trade union representatives, economists and members of the general public who supported HSR.

“We built a coalition of people and briefed them, and they became sales people for the [HSR] program, so if there was activity, we had a panel of people we could put up to combat our opponents and, depending on the messages, we had different supporters to put forward,” said Bethell.

The campaign also distributed “myth-busting documents” to news outlets anytime there was an inaccurate statement made about the HS2 project, he added.

“It took about four months to make an impact, but these news outlets started to learn they would get a phone call from us to set the record straight,” Bethell said.

Campaign leaders also worked to streamline messages.

“We found there was a great jumble of arguments [against the project] … so we focused on three key messages — capacity, jobs and linking areas of the country,” Bethell said.

In addition, leaders “popularized” the HSR message by focusing less on the technical aspects of the project and more on linking rail investment with job creation and the benefits it would provide for future generations.

Similar strategies can be used to rally support for HSR in the United States, Bethell believes. Although the argument against HSR is more ideological and partisan in the United States than it was in the United Kingdom, there is still “quite a close parallel,” he said.

“The case for trains needs to be made in a more structured way,” he said. “The jobs arguments in the U.S. is not very well made, based on what I’ve seen. And in terms of environmentalists, the exaggerations and concerns need to be picked off in quite a technical way — you need to bring in business experts and engineers.”

The business and labor communities need to get involved, too, to explain benefits in terms of employment and opportunities.

But when it comes to raising support for HSR, the most difficult hurdle to clear always will be funding, said Bethell. Private funding can’t be sought until “the last possible moment,” after all the planning and engineering work has been cleared, and politicians have a hard time committing money for projects that take 15 years to complete, he added.

“The economic case for any long-term transportation project is difficult,” he said. “Vision and imagination does have to bridge the gap between the numbers.”

Angela Cotey

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 2/9/2012