THE Sunderland-born chair of HS2, the UK’s largest infrastructure programme, told North-East business leaders he sees the route as galvanising interest in how the country can level up.

Allan Cook CBE was speaking to North East England Chamber of Commerce members about the substantial opportunities available with the project and encouraged companies to tender for them.

He also used his speech to praise Chamber member Cleveland Bridge, based in Darlington, which has supplied modular bridges for HS2.

He began the webinar by explaining his proud North-East roots which began as an apprentice electrician. His experience now stretches back 45 years before his current position, supporting the delivery team on the £40 billion HS2 programme’s first phase.

Mr Cook said: “In my role I often quote the Duke of Wellington who said the business of life is to find out what you don’t know by what you do know. In effect he was saying you need to try and see what is over the other side of the hill.

“At present we are being tested to the limit with uncertainties and trying to see over the hill in the transport sector.

“There are challenges but one thing is for sure, I’m certain we need HS2 more than ever, to increase our connectivity and capacity and also to help reduce our carbon footprint.”

He said there had never been a more important time to invest in the rail network as well as the transport benefits the investment can provide a huge boost to the whole economy through supply chain contracts.

At the peak of the HS2 construction works in 2023/24 around 30k jobs will be created.

Mr Cook said: “HS2 will not just create jobs it will be creating careers. We will employ a whole range of people that you might not expect including archaeologists and chemical engineers.

“There will also be employment boosts in over 400k supply chain opportunities. This programme of work is going to have a positive impact well into the next generation.”

Cleveland Bridge is already delivering part of the route’s infrastructure. He called the company one of the world’s best designers of bridges and explained due to their innovative modular bridges, a crossing over the M42 was put in place with just one day’s road closure.

As well as Cleveland Bridge 24 further companies are working on HS2 so far and around 75 per cent of the programme’s contracts are suitable for over 400k SMEs.

The huge infrastructure investment is spread over 240 sites, which are still operating despite the Covid challenges, with over 90% contracts won by companies in the UK.

In closing. Mr Cook said: “Much of our rail network dates back to the 1850s and we urgently need to modernise these Victorian systems of rail tracks and signalling. There are over 350 miles of rail system we have to improve and our team will grow to 2,000 people in time, to ensure it is delivered.”

Marianne O Sullivan, Chamber policy adviser who specialises in transport said: “We are extremely grateful Allan Cook spent time explaining the challenges and substantial opportunities for our members through the HS2 project.

“North-East businesses are only too aware of the need to upgrade the rail network so it becomes more reliable and gives our region the first class connectivity so urgently required. Being able to compete for work on the programme is a substantial bonus.”

The Chamber President’s Club is supported by Learning Curve and the webinar was sponsored by Archers Law.