What Can We Learn from the UK'S Campaign for HSR?

According to James Bethell of the Campaign for High Speed Rail, the potential for high-speed rail to find success in the United Kingdom seemed bleak just a year ago. He made this point during a Webinar co-sponsored by the U.S. High Speed Rail Association.

Together with Lucy James, Bethell presented how the campaign overcame considerable opposition to HSR in the UK, and how the successful campaign was carried out. To start things off, Bethell said there are four key benefit areas that HSR has to offer: capacity, economic, linking up the country and aspiration. In January the UK got the green light for HSR.

Over the last year, the campaign has been working nonstop to rebut the arguments of its often-time well-funded opponents and making the case for HSR to members of the British government and public alike. That message is of jobs, growth, mobility and railway capacity. The campaign mobilized a powerful coalition from across the political spectrum to support high-speed rail, which injected much needed balance into what had been a completely one-sided debate against HSR.

"You have to try to normalize the debate by clearing up the exaggeration," Bethell said in reference to the messages the opposition is sending out. To do this, it's important to fit your message to the right supporters. For example, if you are trying to make the argument for how high-speed rail benefits jobs, get a union member or someone in a similar role to voice that message.

The Campaign for High Speed Rail built a coalition of supporters among key groups including: business leaders, rail industry, civic leaders, parliamentarians, trade unions, economists and the public. From these groups, they recruited individuals to act as spokespeople for the cause.

Bethell and James advised that in the United States, we need to make the case for high-speed rail in a more structured way. They suggest that case studies for the business community need to be written about the employment opportunities HSR can provide. "You need to talk to people in a language they can understand," he said.

For politicians, high-speed rail means different things but for many of them it means jobs. "If high-speed rail is going to make sense at a political level, it has to tie the trains to jobs," Bethell said.

Bethell also suggested that the U.S. campaign needs to better engage the public. While a nationwide campaign may not make sense since projects are state-based, a strong regional effort can be successful.

James stressed that it was important in their campaign to mobilize civic and business leaders to spread the message. Much of the success of the Campaign for High Speed Rail can be attributed to giving supporters the right information and tools to get the message out and do a lot of the work themselves.

"You can turn something like this around; you just have to have the perseverance to do it," concluded James.

There will be a workshop about the UK high-speed rail grassroots campaign at USHSR's upcoming High Speed Rail Summit taking place at the end of this month in Washington, D.C.