As speculation swirls about the future of HS2’s Phase 2b, which will provide links from Birmingham to Manchester and the north, we should remember that this massive transport project has provided a once-in-a-lifetime catalyst for UK rail innovation and young people’s career development.
HS2 has pioneered world-leading innovation developed within our universities, including the use of advanced simulation tools such as digital twin technology, electrification optimisation and novel track and civil engineering structures design. These innovations will enjoy a life far beyond HS2 - used in other projects and exported around the globe.
Twenty-one universities from across the UK, including the University of Birmingham, make up the UK Rail Research and Innovation Network (UKRRIN). A collaboration between academia and industry, UKRRIN accelerates innovation in the rail sector and supports the introduction of innovative technologies and products from research into market for application globally. We have provided HS2 with many innovate technologies, but equally important, HS2 has given us a real-world platform to develop these systems.
HS2 supports 30,000 jobs, but its benefits go far beyond simply re-employing members of the existing workforce. HS2 and its supply chain have recruited and trained 100s of UK graduates, over 1,000 apprentices and employed over 3,000 people not previously in employment.Professor Clive Roberts, University of Birmingham; Professor William Powrie, University of Southampton; and Professor Paul Allen, University of Huddersfield.
The construction sector is notoriously conservative and invests far too little in research. However, it has seen HS2 deliver the catalytic effect that we see in other industries, notably aviation and automotive, of galvanising the supply chain to take innovation seriously and research new materials, designs, and ways of working. This too will have a substantial legacy and export potential.
HS2 supports 30,000 jobs, but its benefits go far beyond simply re-employing members of the existing workforce. HS2 and its supply chain have recruited and trained 100s of UK graduates, over 1,000 apprentices and employed over 3,000 people not previously in employment. This has created a cohort of railway specialists who will serve the country well beyond the current project.
The overall project costs are of concern, but it is worth emphasising that costs were determined by early decisions about speed, frequency and environmental impact and must be weighed against the socio-economic benefits – the biggest of which is that HS2 will increase capacity across the UK rail network with high frequency services, rather than the popular focus on speed.
There are environmental concerns with any transport infrastructure project of this size, but HS2 addresses these issues with construction in tunnels or deep cuttings to mitigate environmental intrusion. HS2’s route aligns with motorways and major roads, requiring a lot of diversionary work, with city centre destinations and specific interchange locations prioritised. Most of these choices make sense, but it is impossible to tell which by just looking at the costs – the whole picture must be considered.
Comparing the project with international benchmarks is challenging - doing things is expensive in countries like ours, partly due to planning requirements and safety but mainly because Britain is a small, densely populated country. If we want to improve transport connectivity, we must pay to overcome the unavoidable challenges – they are not going to go away.
Railway lines are not isolated pieces of infrastructure – when designed well they connect to the entirety of the transport network. The advent of HS2 has catalysed new transport links and upgrades in Birmingham, including tram extensions and mainline journey time improvements. Similarly, Phase 2b is effectively the first stage of the Northern Powerhouse Rail project with 40% of the new track kilometres earmarked for use in the project.
Connection to the high-speed network forms the foundation and business case on which future schemes are based. Scrapping Phase 2b or the link to Euston puts rail expansion in the North of England at risk. Choices made now have implications for benefits as well as costs - if we do half the job now, as many are suggesting may be possible, most of the benefits certainly will not be realised.
The world has admired Britain’s railways for two centuries. We now have a chance to reinforce our global position by completing and delivering the benefits of this key project which will transform customer experience across the railway network for future generations. This opportunity must not be squandered.
- Professor Clive Roberts (University of Birmingham), UKRRIN Lead Academic and Director of the UKRRIN Centre of Excellence in Digital Systems
- Professor William Powrie (University of Southampton), Director of the UKRRIN Centre of Excellence in Infrastructure
- Professor Paul Allen (University of Huddersfield), Director of the UKRRIN Centre of Excellence in Rolling Stock