Having conducted interviews with senior executives in some of the world’s biggest companies for nigh on twenty five years now, I can count on one hand the number of women among them. Included in that number though, was one female non-executive director who would only conduct the interview via email because she regarded herself as far too important to meet face-to-face.

So meeting Alison Munro was quite a novelty in that sense, and a first impression is that she is slightly regal, but on speaking further that opinion widened out with the realisation that her manner is more to do with her no- nonsense single mindedness and razor sharp intelligence – attributes that would be hard to better in driving through one of the most contentious projects in recent times.

A short while before the interview, HS2 had agreed to revise its plans to redevelop Euston as part of phase 1, ‘partly’ said the press release, ‘in response to concerns from the community’ about potential disruption that would have stretched over more than a decade. Following shortly after that, the company said it had ‘listened to residents, campaigners and Ealing council’ and agreed to tunnel the section between Northolt and North Acton. In a sense, nobody saw this more flexible image on the horizon and it’s been heavily speculated upon, in a grudgingly positive way. What though, are the longer-term implications – will the developments in London encourage furious opposition groups in the shires for example to fight harder or to work in a more cooperative way? Already, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, referring to the London decisions, has gone on record as saying, ‘We would expect to hear similar additional mitigation announced where HS2 would pass through tranquil rural areas.’

On this, Munro was fairly tight-lipped. She is happy to state the decisions reflect the fact that community concerns are listened to, ‘but I hope they will also see that the reason we’ve made the changes is to develop what we think is a better value for money solution in these cases. I’m sure people will see it as an opportunity to argue for more tunnels and so on, but I hope they’ll also understand that the decisions reflect a range of criteria. So cost comes into it in delivering an effective solution while also obviously reflecting people’s concerns and environmental impacts.’

Alternative suggestions a help or hindrance?

Elsewhere in this issue, Lord Berkeley describes his and Lord Bradshaw’s proposal for Euston Cross, a new underground station connecting Euston with St Pancras and King’s Cross as part of a through link between HS1 and HS2.

Their plans were submitted to the Secretary of State in February, requesting him to instruct HS2 to investigate this option.

In asking Munro how she really feels about alternative suggestions, her measured response showed that she feels HS2 has moved beyond that stage.

‘My view is that we have selected the best route and the best options, so the point we are at now is that we’re not looking to make major changes, but as we’ve gone through the process we have tried to make sure we have considered and explored the full range of options. And it’s important that we get it right as this is going to be a massive investment, there for generations to come.’

Benefits realised with supporting policies

Another well-publicised alternative suggestion is based on the view that if HS2 is launched London-first, central Birmingham will find itself within one hour’s commute of London’s massive business sector, which will grow off new Birmingham business, thus setting the North South divide in stone. But Munro is clear that London will not suck up the rewards. ‘This really is a great opportunity for the regions, and there’s evidence from overseas that it’s not just the capital city that benefits. If you look at high speed rail in France, the Paris-Lyon line has shown that Lyon has really grown and developed out of that. It’s developed service sectors and consultancies, and quite a lot of the sort of business you might expect to see in Paris has actually grown in Lyon as a result of the network, so it’s not a one- way street.’

One key lesson that HS2 has learned in studying overseas high speed, is that bringing cities closer together by reducing travelling times is only part of the benefits equation, as Munro explained: ‘We’ve investigated what’s going on around the world, making sure that as we develop the specification of the design and how it will operate, that we’re drawing all of the lessons of tried and tested systems. But also learning from other countries in terms of how to make sure the benefits are realised, because one of the things we observe is that high speed rail provides an opportunity, it doesn’t necessarily deliver the silver bullet on its own, and places that have been successful in using high speed rail to regenerate and to lead development have had strong supporting policies to ensure those benefits are realised.’

Keeping a balance

With the Queen’s speech giving emphatic approval to HS2 with not one but two bills – a hybrid measure giving government power to build the first phase, and a paving bill to allow preparatory department spending, the project is pretty much a goer. But the path is far from clear. The government is due to finalise the precise route of HS2 next year in advance of legislation in 2015 – but that is likely to be delayed by a flood of judicial reviews and court actions over the legality of the consultation process, among many other predicted future issues. Media commentary, while conveying that the project enjoys cross-party support, has mostly concentrated on the negatives. Perhaps not surprisingly, The Telegraph of 7th May ran a piece on its own research which concluded that HS2 will ‘destroy more jobs than it creates’; respected rail commentator Christian Wolmar suggested the environmental and economic case for HS2 is ‘losing clout’ and former Wales secretary Cheryl Gillian labelled the project a ‘boy’s toy’ that will ‘saddle future governments with huge debt.’

How does Munro feel about all this on a personal level – it can’t be easy to deal with? Again, she is steadfast after a fairly long pause. ‘One has to seek a balance here. This is a fantastic project and will be the biggest in Europe, so you have to keep in mind the reasons why we’re doing it. That said, obviously there are a lot of people along the route who understandably are very upset by the proposals and worried about what it will mean for them. And we have to deal with those as sensitively and respectfully as we can. But at the end of the day this is a great legacy for the country.’ So you’re happy and strong each day to defend it? I ask. ‘Yes, as I say it can be difficult at times, it can be difficult for me and difficult for my staff because they do get into some really quite upsetting and emotional conversations with people, but I think generally there is a positive feeling here because we see it as a great project to be working on.’

The job is clearly something that Munro enjoys doing, ‘It’s a privilege to be working on something that will be a real game changer and we have a really good organisation here, with an incredibly positive attitude, a really broad mix of skills and backgrounds, really pulling together.’ She also enjoys ‘working with the cities’ that will be connected by HS2. ‘There’s a lot to deliver so I have to make sure it all gets done, but I try to get out to meet the businesses in the cities because we need to hear what the benefits are for them so we can make sure we design HS2 in a way that maximises opportunities.’

Objectors in a ‘different place’

Pondering the not so enjoyable side and asked what worries her most, Munro takes a while, and she is circumspect but honest. ‘I think it is getting our communications right. We have tried very, very hard with people along the route but there are quite a lot who are still really trying to challenge whether the project should go ahead. We are trying to really engage with them in terms of ‘how do we refine the design of the project’, but they’re not really in the same place, they’re still in a place where they don’t want it to happen. We haven’t got it all right first time, so I think that’s probably the most difficult and challenging area.

‘The other thing is to make sure that we are also concentrating on the positives. It can be easy to be drawn into worrying all the time about how we manage the people along the route and their concerns, which obviously is very important, but we also need to make sure we’re keeping our eye on the beneficiaries as well and making sure that we’re addressing and communicating the opportunities that we can give them.’

Come to my dinner party

Google Alison Munro and a list of business-like information will dominate – there is very little information about her on a personal level. She is happy to be open but slightly taken by surprise and one gets the sense that through all this, there haven’t been many questions along the lines of ‘how do you relax in your spare time?’. In fact she plays tennis ‘when I can’, and likes reading, again when she can. ‘I also like to have time with my family – I’ve got two grown up daughters but it’s nice to see them at the weekends, and I like cooking and I like wine.’

Munro started her career as an economist in the environmental sphere, joining what was then the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Later she became more of a generalist and began focusing on transport, ‘I think because transport economics is actually a really interesting and very well-developed area where there’s a lot of work for economists to do. But also transport affects everybody’s lives so it’s actually something that’s very topical, and it’s a great dinner party conversation, in fact I can’t go to a dinner party and say I work in transport without someone complaining about their parking ticket or something like that.’

Women in rail

Having come that morning from Railtex, where I was struck by the absolute paucity of women, I realised more than ever that new initiatives such as the networking and mentoring group, Women in Rail, are absolutely vital. Munro agrees. ‘I think progress is being made but you’re definitely right, women are in a minority in the rail sector. I have to say when I worked in the DfT in the rail directorate I was the most and only senior woman among what was probably a couple of hundred people, so I feel really passionate about trying to encourage women, because it’s a healthier and more enjoyable working environment if you’ve got a mix, and there’s a great untapped resource out there that we ought to be making the most of. Women quite often have a different perspective, they may not be quite so focused on the technical details but they will be interested in the passenger experience so you don’t have to have an engineering background to be able to make a real contribution in the rail industry because it needs that sort of non-technical input as well.’

Importance of a mentor

I wondered what advice Munro would give to women coming up the ranks in rail and considering that HS2 employs, as she says, ‘some really great women and is doing well in terms of gender balance’.

‘I think one of the things is to seek out opportunities. Senior women in rail have a really important part to play as role models and mentors, so I would encourage younger women to try to find someone to guide them and help them work out the good opportunities. But I think the other thing we need to do is really get the message out there about the interesting jobs there are. I think rail can be seen as rather ‘anoraky’ but actually it really is interesting and it touches everybody’s lives, so we need to be doing more as an industry to attract people into it.’

HS2 is certainly playing a part in encouraging youngsters into rail, working with schools and universities, and it has recruited its first four apprentices. ‘It’s about building excitement in younger people, because when you look at it, they are actually going to be the main beneficiaries of high speed rail. This is a project that won’t be delivered for quite a while yet, so there’s a real opportunity to build enthusiasm with the younger generation to get them attracted into the industry, in a variety of roles, not solely engineering.’

Exciting times

HS2 Ltd is aiming to deposit the bill for phase one at the end of this year, and is hoping to launch its consultation on phase two (the legs to Manchester and Leeds). ‘So that too is a really positive step,’ says Munro, ‘because it’s showing we are really making progress. London to Birmingham is very much the first phase and it’s not the end of the story.’

And HS2 as a company has grown enormously, from 90 employees last January to 400 and growing. ‘We’ve got people seconded from the DfT, from Network Rail, and our development partners, so it’s a real mix of different ways of working and therefore important that we as an organisation build our own identity, with our own core values and making sure we make the most of the fantastic range of experience in delivering the project,’ says Munro. ‘And I’ve found it a really fruitful experience and one that is new to me, to work with a strong board that provides great support and experience that you wouldn’t necessarily have in an executive team.’ In terms of her own personal plans and ambitions, without hesitation Munro enthuses, ‘I would really like to be the first passenger on that first train in 2026! So my real ambition is to see this through, not necessarily right through to 2026 but to get the project well on its way. I’ve invested nearly four and a half years in this and I really want to see it come to fruition.’

I’m sure she will.