A computer generated image of the HS2 station at Piccadilly in Manchester showing the large plaza and the barrel roof design

HS2 surgery is the wrong choice say leading academics

HS2 Manchester Piccadilly station. A visual of things to come ... perhaps HS2

A paper, credited to several university professors specialising in the rail industry, has warned of the unforeseen consequences of abandoning the HS2 high speed rail project between Birmingham and Manchester. They say amputating HS2’s northern leg must not hobble Britain’s railways. They warn that with the future of HS2’s Birmingham to Manchester link in doubt, the UK must not squander the opportunity to boost its global leadership in railways.

Leading academics, several of them attached to the UK Rail Research and Innovation Network hosted at the University of Birmingham, have voiced deep concerns about the future of HS2 Phase 2b. There is widespread speculation that spiralling costs and government ambivalence will soon lead to the cancellation of the section of Britain’s high speed rail project which would provide links from Birmingham to Manchester and the north. The academic paper says that this massive transport project has provided a once-in-a-lifetime catalyst for UK rail innovation and career development among young engineers.

Real-world skills platform

The three academics who are credited as authors are Professors William Powrie from the University of Southampton; Paul Allen from the University of Huddersfield; and Clive Roberts from the University of Birmingham. They are all specialists in rail technologies and operations, and all senior figures within the UK Rail Research and Innovation Network (UKRRIN) Centre of Excellence. The centre may be hosted at the University of Birmingham, but there is no abandonment of the other twenty universities involved in the UKRRIN, many of which stand to miss out on connection to HS2 if the project is further cut back.

“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”, notes the academic paper. “These innovations will enjoy a life far beyond HS2 – used in other projects and exported around the globe. We have provided HS2 with many innovate technologies, but equally important, HS2 has given us a real-world platform to develop these systems.

Created a cohort of railway specialists

The paper is critical of the construction sector, saying it invests far too little in research. However, they say the high speed rail project has made a tangible change to that. “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”, they find. “This too will have a substantial legacy and export potential.”

A map showing the HS2 project between Birmingham and Manchester, the core Northern Powerhouse Rail route between Liverpool and York, and showing the overlap around Manchester
HS2’s Manchester route and the Northern Powerhouse Rail route (sometimes called HS3) overlap around Manchester.

More tangibly, the professors note that HS2 supports 30,000 jobs. However, some other quarters say HS2 has cornered the market and stripped expertise from other projects. That is not a position taken by the paper. “Its benefits go far beyond simply re-employing members of the existing workforce. HS2 and its supply chain have recruited and trained hundreds 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.”

Reinforce UK global position

While aware that the overall project costs are of concern, the paper emphasises that costs were determined by early decisions about speed, frequency and environmental impact. “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 the whole picture must be considered. Comparing the project with international benchmarks is challenging – mainly because Britain is a small, densely populated country. If we want to improve transport connectivity, we must pay to overcome the unavoidable challenges.”

The paper makes the fair conclusion that railway lines are not isolated pieces of infrastructure. They further conclude that HS2 Phase 2b (the threatened Manchester connection) is effectively the first stage of the Northern Powerhouse Rail, and they calculate that forty per cent of the new track earmarked for Phase 2b would be shared with NPR. “If we do half the job now, as many are suggesting may be possible, most of the benefits certainly will not be realised”, concludes the paper. “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.”

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is UK correspondent for RailTech.com and Railfreight.com

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