As fast as we can

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Apr/May 2012

Professor Andrew McNaughton, chief engineer of HS2 Ltd, addressed the iRail event and then talked to RTM about the importance of engaging younger people, and the future of high speed rail.

The rail industry has a heck of a good future,” Professor Andrew McNaughton told RTM at iRail 2012. “Rail is going to be the backbone of this country’s transport, passenger or freight, and it is likely that it will play a bigger role than it does today in cities.”

Cities are growing, he added, highlighting the need to increase rail capacity tenfold to meet predicted demand. As a thriving, high-technology industry, rail should match young people’s interests and catch their imaginations.

Ensuring the long-term, sustainable future of the industry was a key concern of the conference, and something HS2’s chief engineer supports wholeheartedly.

The next generation

McNaughton said: “The railway industry needs to attract a really good cross-section of committed young people who have many alternatives. We need to get out and show them what is possible, and invite them in.

“The great thing to me about this and the reason I’ve turned up to be part of it, is the way it invites young people into the railway. It doesn’t hector them or lecture them, they can make their own minds up, and the only way young people will want to join is because they can see something exciting.

“Derby is a centre of rail technology that has a brighter future than its past. The future is about high technology, something that is attractive and modern.”

Encouraging young people to see the rail industry as exciting and as a growth industry in need of specialised jobs could help boost recruitment among the best and brightest, McNaughton added. “I know many school children think the railway is old stuff, that it’s an 18th-century technology. Its not, it’s a 21st-century technology.”

In the ‘distinguished lecture’ following the main event, Professor McNaughton said this change of perspective was achievable and already happening to some extent. He said: “The cream of young people coming out of universities are clamouring to get on HS2. It does have the advantage of being a bit interesting!”

Speaking to RTM, he emphasised the need to contact people at the right age, when they are making decisions affecting their careers, and called for the industry to “point out there’s a world, perhaps not one they’re familiar with, of engineering and manufacturing – of making things and making a difference”.

He added: “I think the industry has talked for too long about it – it’s now sunk in sufficiently and we better get on with it now. Otherwise we’re an industry with a great future but nobody to hand the baton over to.”

A blank slate

Discussing HS2, McNaughton voiced his enthusiasm for working from scratch, allowing design to take uncompromised precedence.

He told RTM: “HS2 is going to be the new long-distance backbone of the country. It is the one chance in 200 years to build for the future and not to just modify the past. I don’t have to worry about where our great grandfathers built the railways. We start with a blank sheet of paper, both geographically and in terms of the railway system itself.”

HS2 can therefore focus on its key priorities: safety, reliability, high capacity, integration and, most importantly, speed. He said: “We’re going to try to go as fast as we can.”

Running the trains as fast as possible is a “central part of our business case”, McNaughton said, with the first trains expected to run at 225mph. “The mechanical engineering is already there. We have the ability to do it, how do we exploit it? It’s quite exciting.”

These top speeds are changing the country’s topography, bringing Birmingham International airport closer to London than Stansted in terms of travel time. Manchester and Birmingham will become like two suburbs of the same city, McNaughton asserted.

Trunk before branches

But when asked about the possibility of Scotland starting work on a high-speed link into HS2 from the north as soon as possible, he was less enthusiastic.

McNaughton suggested that high-speed rail should be taken first to the places where the most people are, as due to the expense of the project, it is only cost-efficient when there are the highest numbers of passengers.

The Y-shaped network in England will connect six of the biggest ten city regions in the country, he explained; London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, the East Midlands and south Yorkshire, by 2032, with trains then running on to the North East and Scotland.

He told RTM: “It is between the major cities; it’s inter-city travel not inter-village travel.”

Scotland, it seems, must wait its turn to reap the rewards of HS2. “Normally when you grow a tree, you start with the trunk – then you go to the branches. I feel strongly that there is no point starting with the branches; you have to start with the trunk to create the capacity, otherwise you will not get the benefit.”

Almost every city excluded from the direct Y network has its arguments as to why the line should be modified to reach them. But McNaughton told the audience that using a less direct route would not incorporate enough traffic to justify the cost. Going to a single city region for a few trains an hour does not make economical sense, he continued, and warned that although there may be a political push for some of these options, similar efforts in other countries were “economic disasters”.

He also hinted at a “clever solution” for bridging the gap between Derby and Nottingham without damaging the green belt between them, to be announced at the end of this year.

Redefining the centre

One contentious point that critics have raised is that the stations for HS2 are not located directly in the centre of the cities they serve, meaning total travel time will be extended – negating some of all of the savings from a faster journey on the highspeed sections.

McNaughton suggested that for smaller cities, that due to a difficult trade-off between the cost of getting into the city and the reduced market for the service, HS2 would go as close as possible, then connect with regional transport. Since the project is so far in the future, there is plenty of time available to install infrastructure to connect with the planned high-speed stations, he suggested.

But for the biggest cities, high speed will connect right into the city centres, McNaughton assured RTM.

“It has to be. Two stations in the centre of London, a station on the edge of Birmingham across the motorway network and a station smack in the middle which will be a new commercial quarter. It will generate a huge amount of growth.”

When reaching passengers’ target destinations by building into cities is extremely difficult, the key is to move the centre. With the dawn of HS2, McNaughton predicts that cities will grow and change around these stations, to provide a new area of development that links directly to the high speed line.

However, this caused further disquiet when campaigners and councillors inferred from his comments that such expansion could see the concreting over of the treasured Meriden Gap between the main West Midlands conurbations, and infringing on the city of Coventry.

With a political will

For many supporters of HS2, the long timeline is a test of patience, especially as the second stage has yet to go through a lengthy period of public consultation and Parliamentary approval. Following McNaughton’s speech, one member of the audience questioned the realities of speeding up the process.

McNaughton replied: “In technical terms it would be very easy. 2026 is about as fast as you could go to opening something. Constructionally, it will always be easier to build the first stage. With a political will it could all open at pretty much the same time. The Treasury would probably have a bit of a hiccup because it means spending the money quicker. But from a railway engineering perspective we could get the whole network in 2026, it just requires the political master to say ‘do it’.”

McNaughton refuted scepticism that our construction industry is capable of taking on such a task, calling such disparagement “nonsense”. He added: “We’ve got some of the most able construction people in this country.”

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