BRITAIN’s High Speed 2 project was in the headlines for all the wrong reasons last autumn. The Conservative government’s decision to scrap the remainder of the second phase of the project, which would have extended the 360km/h line to Manchester, was widely derided. The British railway industry is arguably still reeling from the decision.

While the drama was playing out, work was progressing on the first phase of the project. Construction is now well underway on the 225km high-speed line between London and Birmingham, as our in-depth report reveals.

The HS2 story emphasises the complex and varying challenges of delivering a high-speed railway project. The difficulties the scheme has faced and the mistakes that have been made can, however, serve as a case study to help others to successfully deliver similar projects.

After all, high-speed rail ticks so many important boxes. It is the most sustainable way of moving large numbers of people quickly over long-distances. High-speed rail also helps to spread prosperity by bringing outlying communities closer to economic centres. And, crucially, it is green. In an era that will increasingly be defined by the race to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a paradigm that remains overly reliant on congested roads and polluting planes needs to change. Significant expansion of the global high-speed rail network beyond the current 60,000km - 45,000km of which is in China - is the best means of achieving a transformation on the scale required.

Yet, as HS2 illustrates, this is not easy to achieve. Issues with planning, technical complexity, cost, time, and securing sufficient public and political support continue to trip up key projects. A new report from consultancy Aecom attempts to identify ways to overcome these issues and offers a playbook to support the construction of more high-speed lines around the world. The findings are based on interviews with 105 senior decision makers involved in global high-speed rail projects.

Cost is probably the biggest challenge. Building these technically complex railways is not cheap - the extremely high cost of the first phase of HS2 was used as justification to scrap the second phase. HS2’s costs have also risen due to the inflationary challenges posed by high energy costs and the supply chain pressures of recent years. The project has attempted to counter the impact of inflation by temporarily pausing work on some elements. However, this apparent vulnerability of long-term infrastructure projects is a major concern to the high-speed rail proponents surveyed by Aecom: 73% worry that the rising cost of construction, equipment and materials could stop projects in progress while 83% state that the cost of high-speed rail construction needs to fall significantly to enable expansion in their region.

Nevertheless, the current cost challenges are not unique, but cyclical. Aecom notes that successful high-speed networks in Japan, Europe and China were able to ride out similar challenges in the past thanks to long-term, stable commitment and funding from government.

In the current climate, it argues that strong government support, including through long-term financing commitments, is essential to both reduce costs and speed up delivery. Indeed, more than two-thirds of survey respondents say greater government control can result in quicker construction, better-quality infrastructure and reduced costs by helping to streamline regulatory approvals, and deliver faster land acquisition and planning consent. Governments can also open the door to innovative financing structures, including through partnerships with other governments to develop cross-border schemes.

Interestingly, the study also says it is possible for business-led groups to spearhead the development of high-speed megaprojects in regions where government support is lacking, noting the experience of Brightline in the United States.

Brightline successfully introduced a near high-speed rail service in Florida between Orlando Airport and West Palm Beach in 2023 and started work on a new high-speed line between Las Vegas and southern California last month. Central to its approach is a tight focus on serving markets and city pairs of 400-560km where introduction of a high-speed rail service is competitive with other modes.

To improve project viability, Brightline is seeking to use existing transport corridors wherever possible - much of the West project will run in the median of the I-15 highway. This helps to expedite land acquisition costs and possible planning issues. Critically, Brightline has worked closely with local governments to secure the approvals it requires to begin construction. This means it was able to present a shovel-ready project, leaving it in a strong position to receive a substantial federal grant, with a $US 3bn allocation duly arriving in December. This a win-win situation: it offers the incumbent government visible proof to voters that it is delivering on key policies, while providing Brightline with capital it is unable to raise itself.

Maintaining political and public support throughout the duration of a project that will span political terms is also imperative for success. Clear and consistent communication of the railway’s benefits will help to keep the majority of the public onside and reduce the risk of political leaders ditching what they perceive as an unpopular project that may win them short-term political favour, as was experienced with HS2.

High-speed rail projects should also look to embrace the latest advances in technology that can help with reducing delivery times and costs. Digitalisation, artificial intelligence, and building information modelling all promise substantial improvements.

High-speed trains have become symbols of modernity and synonymous with the countries they operate in. Delivery of the lines they run on are complex undertakings, but the benefits continue to outweigh the costs. Aecom’s report offers insight on how to clear some of the biggest hurdles to building these railways. Governments, and even some private undertakings, must find the courage to pursue them, not least because there are few comparable alternatives.