HS2: More Than Just a Railway

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“Allan, I’ve just seen the press release.  Have you gone mad?  The programme is a basket case – politically, a real poisoned chalice.  Why risk your well-earned reputation on this programme?  Why didn’t you call me?  I would have been able to dissuade you.”  It was seven o’clock, on a chilly December morning, and I was walking across Parliament Square, en route to my first day as Chairman of HS2.  On the line was a senior businessman, an engineer like me, and a personal friend.  “Why would I call you?” I replied, unhesitatingly.  “This programme is truly transformational.  I have an opportunity to be a part of this transformation.  It is, or will be, the pinnacle of my career as an engineer.”

I stepped down from HS2 six months or so ago.  My first blog for vocL seems a good moment to ask who was right:  my personal friend or I.  Having seen it, close-up – lived with it; got cross with it; known it, warts ‘n’ all; tackled the dark days many chairs face from time to time, chairing it – do I still think of HS2, let alone its chairmanship, as an irresistible opportunity for an engineer?  Having heard every conceivable argument – for, against and on the fence – do I still believe it will be transformative for Britain:  British transport, the British economy, British society, British construction and British engineering?   I do.  It was I who was right, not my friend; and I’m now going to explain why.

Let me begin by explaining a little about myself.  The biggest influence on my career was a sparky, my dad.  My first real job was as his apprentice, and it was because of him and that job that I ended up with the honour’s degree in Electronics from which everything else followed.  However, my first real lessons in transformation came not from a sparky but from a blacksmith, my grandfather, at whose side, and in whose forge, I not only learned how to make tools but also, at the tender age of five, I actually made them.

What do we engineers mean by “transformation”?  We mean trying to understand how things work; then, using that understanding to see how we can improve them; and, finally, actually doing so.  And that, of course, is precisely what I was doing with my grandfather:  taking cold, hard, rigid metal, heating it, changing it and forging it into something different, something useful.  We might not have been turning out bronze statues for Parliament Square but I found the process magical.  I still do.  I always will.  Is it a major reason why I became an engineer?  It has to be; and, for me, HS2 has that same magic.

Let’s start with the basic engineering.

Firstly, there’s the new technology:

  • Trains capable of running from London to Manchester in just over an hour – the fastest public transport Britain will ever have seen;
  • High-speed trains, 48 an hour, on 345 miles of brand-new, high-speed track, and capable of carrying over 600,000 passengers a day;
  • Automatic Train Operation – driverless trains;
  • New signalling technology;
  • Zero-carbon station design.

Then, there’s its revolutionary infrastructure:

  • Track that’s equivalent to one third the length of Britain, running through some of the densest (and most expensive), and therefore most challenging, urban areas of the country, as well as some of its most beautiful, and therefore most challenging, countryside;
  • 45 miles of twin bore tunnel – three times the length of the tunnels dug for Crossrail;
  • 37 miles of bridges and viaducts – which could span the English Channel from Dover to Calais, with six miles to spare;
  • Almost 100 million cubic tonnes of excavated material, 95% of which will be reused to build embankments and new wildlife habitats for the green corridor running alongside the track.

Then, there’s the reason why:  why HS2 is needed, and how it’s going to transform Britain and British prospects.

At HS2, they talk about the three Cs imperative:  Capacity, Carbon emissions and Connectivity.

Firstly, Capacity…

Our rail requirement was already rising fast before the pandemic.  Now, suddenly, we’re working more from home – and living further from work – and seeking work further from home.  We’re commuting less but commuting further.  Our existing rail infrastructure, however, not only doesn’t meet but also can’t expand to tackle the growing demand. Most of our rail corridors are Victorian.  In over a century, there hasn’t been a single major intercity line built north of the capital.

Secondly, Carbon emissions…

Transport is Britain’s biggest carbon emitter.  Road traffic needs to decarbonise, and we need to find better, cleaner ways to move large numbers of people around the country than private cars or domestic aviation.  HS2 is a large part of the answer.  As a brand-new line, it takes intercity traffic off our most congested north-south rail routes and frees up space for more local, and regional, commuter and freight traffic.  By 2050, HS2 will help create the space for around a billion miles of extra rail journeys a year.

Thirdly, Connectivity…

Connectivity is productivity:  it creates opportunity, generates jobs and business, drives the economy.  Britain, however, is less well connected than it should and could be, and there are troubling regional disparities.  In the 2019-20 period, even as the pandemic was taking hold, Londoners clocked up over 900 million train journeys.  In the North, it was just over 200 million.  If we get HS2 right – integrate it with local and regional transport, and use it to improve not just North-South connectivity but East-West connectivity, too – it can transform the way the British economy works.

Anyone who doubts this should pay a visit to Birmingham.  The place is booming – regenerating – and has got back its civic pride.  Why?  In part, it’s because Birmingham is hosting this summer’s Commonwealth Games, but maybe more relevant is the imminent arrival of HS2.  In the cities of Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle, civic leaders are crying, with one voice, “We need it!  The sooner, the better!  Don’t let us down!”  Why?  Because they want what Birmingham’s having.  They understand connectivity:  they feel its lack and they want its power.  

I chair the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, a group of manufacturing research centres that owes its existence to Innovate UK, the Government’s innovation agency.  It serves the UK aerospace and automotive industries, particularly in the North, in places like Preston and the Midlands, in places like Birmingham.  After HS2, the journey between Preston and the new station at Birmingham Interchange will be just 50 minutes, or twice as fast as the current train journey, and three times faster than the car.  Will this make a real difference to our lives?  It will.  It will allow manufacturers, suppliers and researchers to collaborate more easily, more frequently – and more productively.  It will be transformative.

There is, however, something else that HS2 has the power to transform; and it’s Britain’s sadly depleted skills base.

Our shortage of engineering skills is serious and well known.  Less well known, perhaps, is our shortage of construction skills.  It deserves to be better known:

  • Between 2016 and 2018, there was a decline of 28% in the number of construction workers entering the UK from overseas to work;
  • Level 2 starter-apprenticeships in the construction industry have declined by the same amount over the last 3 years;
  • Nearly half of construction workers are now aged over 45; just 10% are aged 16-24:  a demographic time-bomb.

One part of the solution, to both shortages, is to reach out beyond traditional talent pools.  We must attract, retain and motivate talent from every social group, in particular women and ethnic and sexual minorities, better than we do today.

Another is HS2…

At peak construction, in just 5 years’ time, HS2 will support over 34,000 jobs.  It will need not only engineers – mechanical, electrical, civil, design, process and planning engineers – but also architects and surveyors, drivers and plant operators, security guards and health and safety officers, riggers, roofers, and plasterers, archaeologists and ecologists, and all the associated support staff.  Over the course of construction, hundreds of thousands of individuals will contribute to HS2 either directly or indirectly, through the supply chain.  Tens of thousands will start new careers on the project, as apprentices, graduates or trainees.

It is their opportunity for personal transformation.  It is also our opportunity, as a country, to transform our infrastructure industry:  to inspire a generation and to build the highly skilled and highly experienced workforce we need to fulfil the industry’s pipeline, estimated at more than £175bn a year for the next two decades.

I don’t use the word “inspire” lightly.  HS2’s potential to inspire even old engineers like me is extraordinary, and that matters; but what really matters is its potential to inspire the young:  those with the mindset and aptitude to become engineers but who need something to spark their imaginations, much as my grandfather’s hammer, forge and anvil sparked mine.

The young at heart are excited by change.  In HS2, there is change almost everywhere you look:  head-up displays – where critical information is presented to the user at eye-level – , wearable tech, driverless trains, Building Information Modelling (BIM), Integrated Management Systems (IMS) and, very importantly, the use of new materials, new techniques and new technology – cleaner, greener engineering – to take the carbon both out of HS2’s construction and out of its operation.  It’s frankly staggering.

Above all, people of all ages are excited by progress.  HS2 is not simply a transformative project.  It’s a recruiting sergeant; an advertisement, on the grandest scale, for engineering’s transformative power; a very public demonstration of high quality, innovative, engineering’s capacity to solve problems and drive radical progress:  social, cultural, economic and environmental progress.

All it needs to realise its full potential is for the rest of us to get behind it and believe in its potential:  business, politicians, the media and the general public.  Sure, it hasn’t always been its own best friend.  It needs to engage local communities with greater skill and sensitivity, and more meaningfully, than it sometimes has in the past – trust me –   it will. This is a project that should make our patriotic breasts swell with pride and with hope. 

Assuming, of course, as I do, that you want there to be another generation of engineers and indeed, Allan Cooks…

Allan Cook CBE DSc, Chairman of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult

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