HS2: The innovation and skills challenge

Source: RTM Apr/May 16

HS2 Ltd commercial director, Beth West, on why the project needs to do things differently.

HS2 will be one of the biggest infrastructure projects in Europe. Fifteen years of construction, a £55.7bn investment, nine major new railway stations and more than 350 miles of new track, bridges, viaducts and tunnels, as well as the next generation of high-speed trains. 

For the rail and construction industry, it’s a massive opportunity. For HS2 Ltd, it’s a huge challenge to mobilise the supply chain on an unprecedented scale to deliver the design and construction, as well as the long-term maintenance and operation. 

At the peak of construction, in the mid-2020s, we expect more than 24,000 people to be working on the project, either on site along the route, or across the UK-wide supply chain. 

Closing the skills gap 

To hit those sorts of numbers we, as an industry, need to recruit and train a lot more people. Every year the UK needs 87,000 graduate engineers, yet in 2013 only 51,000 engineers graduated from British universities and higher education institutions. Added to that, 20% of UK rail engineers are expected to retire over the next 10 years. 

That’s why it’s essential that we move to close the skills gap in order to capitalise on the investment in HS2 and the rest of the national rail network. HS2 will create plenty of jobs, but we need to work together with the government and the industry to provide the people. 

Closing the gap is about numbers, but also crucially about developing higher level skills, and experience in next-generation technologies, like BIM and digital signalling, that will soon be commonplace across the network.

Indeed, the demand for higher level skills is striking. We estimate that 50% of the HS2 workforce will require skills at, or above, Level 3 (A-Level equivalent) yet 80% of the current UK construction workforce typically only train to Level 2. 

National college 

That’s where the new National College for High Speed Rail comes in. Based in twin campuses in Birmingham and Doncaster, the college was established by government to train the next generation of high-speed rail engineers and provide training and support for the existing workforce across the national rail network. 

Due to open in 2017, the college will offer a Higher Technical Diploma as well as short courses in areas such as rail operations, management, commercial awareness, rail systems, asset management, engineering principles and workforce safety and welfare. Full-time and part-time study will be available, with a mix of classroom, virtual learning and work placements. 

The thinking behind the college is simple. It’s all about raising the profile of rail engineering as a profession and providing students, companies, and especially SMEs, the chance to build the high-level skills required for the 21st century rail network. 

That’s important because, even without HS2, the scale of UK rail investment is immense. Current Network Rail plans predict £38bn worth of spending between 2014 and 2019, plus, of course, the ongoing £14.8bn investment in London’s Crossrail. All of this will create demand for thousands of highly skilled people. 

Supply chain changes 

But to deliver that investment, we also need to change the way the whole supply chain works, and crucially how it thinks. 

Just as firms like Uber and AirBnB have transformed the way the taxi and hospitality industries work, I want to find the companies who will pioneer innovative new ways to drive cost out of the rail supply chain, while sharing our commitment to quality, safety and long-term value. 

These ‘disrupter’ firms have been hugely successful in other areas – creating business models that previously simply did not exist, and shaking up the industry in the process. Most of them were SMEs that came out of nowhere, challenging established ways of doing things. The question is, who and what will do the same for the rail industry? 

HS2 is the perfect opportunity for new thinking. With the exception of HS1, we simply haven’t built new rail in any great quantity in the country for over 100 years. That’s why it’s vital that we get the brightest and best new thinking, in terms of training people through the National College for High Speed Rail and apprenticeships, and secure innovative new ways of doing things through our supply chain. 

It’s important because HS2 has the potential to be much more than just a railway. If we take advantage of the opportunity, HS2 will be a catalyst for change across the transport and engineering sector, building British skills and expertise, building careers and transforming the image of the industry, as well as helping to rebalance the national economy.

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email [email protected]


Laurence   23/05/2016 at 09:52

HAving just been to California where they have the metros along the main freeways, (in between the carraiges), and they have space in the states, why not put the railways above our existing motorways. The land is already there it just requires the vision and willpower to implement it. Yes it will be disruptive for a while and so will the new HS2 line. But it will not require massive compulsory purchase as is required now.

John Williams   27/05/2016 at 22:30

HS2 will have a major benefit in terms of developing skills and also construction and that probably explains why there has been so little proper scrutiny of the "business case " which resembles a swiss cheese . If that is what we wish to focus on , then lets be honest and say it is a political project and that is its purpose. If we wish to build a proper railway which will benefit the country , provide capacity not only for passenger but also freight , then HS2 in its current format is not the right vehicle. Fortunately some people are actually starting to ask sensible questions and we need to look properly at the issue before we commit billions to what will be the railways Concorde. Technically good, a rich persons vehicle but commercially a failure.

Jb   21/07/2016 at 22:57

Quite so JW. Main line speeds are high enough anyway and some lines could still perhaps be improved. However, In my view, capacity and connectivity far outweigh any advantages of HS2. This could be achieved by re-opening the main lines and some local ones closed in the late 1960s thus aleviating the WCML and going some way to restoring the comprehensive system we had before then. The traffic is evidently there so lets not waste all this money to satisfy the high speed enthusiasts. The railway should be accessible to as many people as possible.

R O'mard   23/08/2016 at 13:40

It's all well and good to increase the number of engineers but where is the new generation of Bentley 3D BIM modeller's going to come from. UK rail is so heavily invested in Bentley solutions as their modelling and drawing delivery vehicle, yet Bentley users only make up 3% of CAD users in the UK and the majority of those are over 35yrs old. I would like to see the engineers (old and new) hand over the calculations and specifications for projects without the BIM models and drawings to support them. More training opportunities must be made available for Bentley products or there will need to be a massively disruptive change in the way UK rail produce their BIM deliverables.

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