With the new Government carrying out a spending review due to be announced on 25 November, it is a good time to look at one of the big-ticket rail projects around at the moment – HS2.

So far, the HS2 story has been about planning, design, compromise and proposal. The route has been argued over – the term NIMBY (not in my back yard) has come into popular use – and altered several times, which has increased the estimated total cost. The railway is now likely to be largely in cuttings and tunnels, to keep it away from the sight (and ears) of those who live nearby, but that will need extra engineering work.

This is the first of a two-part look at HS2, how it has got to where it is now, and what it plans for the future. In this first instalment, Rail Engineer talks with Andrew McNaughton, the engineer who has been with the project since its first day. After the strategic review has been published and considered, there will be a second article with chief executive Simon Kirby looking forward to Royal Assent and actually getting the construction phase underway.

Three in an office

“I started on HS2 on 9 February 2009,” Andrew McNaughton remembered. “The previous month, Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Transport, stood up in the House of Commons and announced that the Government was going to get up a government owned company to examine the case for high speed rail in Britain and recommend a first route if that was the right thing to do.

“So HS2 Limited was setup as a company limited by guarantee, which it still is, and a senior civil servant was seconded to be its economist and chief executive, she was Alison Munro. It had as its Chairman a previous Permanent Secretary in Sir David Rowlands and it was set up, very deliberately, outside the DfT and separate from the existing rail industry to look at things objectively and from scratch. We were charged with providing advice to Government by the end of the year.

“Day one, I had no phone, no computer, we had a rickety desk in a bit of surplus Government property at 55 Victoria Street where the SRA used to live!

“I was seconded from Network Rail. I was the chief engineer there and so this was a melding of rail knowledge, which was me, with transport planning and economic knowledge, which was Alison. Various people were seconded from the DfT and I also sought out a small number of people  that I trusted completely to come and support me. Then we went out and got, by competitive tender, Arup to be our engineering consultant and Temple to do the environmental stuff.

“The deadline was by the end of the year. So there we were, on the 31st of December, trying to get the printers to work at 17:00 in the evening because our Secretary of State (now Lord Andrew Adonis) had made it very plain that he was going to spend New Year’s Day reading it. The report was about 200 pages long and it had got in it principles that have been with us ever since, such as this is a project to maximise economic benefit.

“So it’s demand-led, not engineering-led, not operational-led, it’s demand-led. The reason you run trains off to Manchester on day one by going up to the West Midlands and then using the conventional existing West Coast main line is because of that first principle, which was to maximise the benefit.”

Alternatives and proposals

That first report was as detailed as the small team could make it. Titled “London to the West Midlands and beyond”, it considered 25 station locations in London. It looked at the case for going via Heathrow, and for not doing so. It analysed around 104 possible routes.

The team behind the report had considered justifications for taking the line up to Newcastle, to Edinburgh and to Glasgow. It looked at the case for a high-speed railway between Leeds and Manchester and other different proposals that were around at the time.

The Conservatives, then in opposition, had suggested a route they called the ‘Reverse S’ – a line that went up to Manchester then went across the Pennines and Leeds, went up to Newcastle and then went back to Glasgow. There was also an Inverse A which had a trunk route to Birmingham then two lines going north – one eventually to Newcastle, one to Glasgow and Edinburgh and potentially a cross-bar which was Leeds-Manchester. There was even a Reverse E, which had no direct link between Birmingham and Manchester. Everything was considered.

And it all went into the report, which was presented to the Secretary of State on 31 December 2009 as promised. He then published it on 11 March 2010 along with his command paper setting out his own thoughts on the proposals.

The biggest benefits were from getting to Manchester and Leeds, so the Inverse A became a Y – a main route to Birmingham and then two arms, one to Leeds and one to Manchester. The link between Leeds and Manchester didn’t have a good business case to be high speed (defined as over 250km/h or 160mph) but should instead simply be an upgraded, fast railway.

So the plan was for a dedicated, high-speed, passenger railway. Unlike HS1, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, it will only be used by high- speed passenger trains. Why not run other trains too?

“You can smuggle Javelins between Eurostars because there aren’t many Eurostars, there are big gaps in the service and it’s a very short distance,” explained Andrew. “You’ve only got from Ebbsfleet to Ashford that they have to get along where they’re going slower than Eurostars. The route out to Ebbsfleet is only 230km/h so they’re basically running at the same speed as the Eurostars out through the London tunnels. The faster bit of the route is only between Ebbsfleet and Ashford. It’s really not far.

“However, if you run a Pendolino on High Speed 2, you would destroy three quarters of the train paths because of the distance and the speed differential.”

HS2 will be an intensively used line, with trains running close together on twin tracks. There is no space between high speed trains for anything slower, and no slow line to move them onto. So the line will be completely taken up with long- distance, high-speed trains.

Speed or capacity?

Capacity is certainly part of the justification for the new line. The southern end of the West Coast main line is full. Long distance traffic is increasing, freight is increasing, and more and more people are moving out of London to areas such as Milton Keynes and commuting by train. As Andrew said, it’s a “triple whammy”.

ES Report

“The West Coast is overloaded three times over, and so a big part of our business case argument in our first report was to release capacity on the West Coast. It’s a big chunk of our BCR, of our business cost benefit ratio.

“But it was never designed to be the West Coast main line bypass. We realised very early on that London to the West Midlands was the most urgent priority. You could say it’s always good to build a tree from the root upwards rather than from the branches down but we’re going to run out of transport capacity between London and the West Midlands before we run out of anything else. So as you build a new line, you improve connectivity and you change the way cities work with each other, which is a big thing that has emerged steadily from our original work.”

There are three types of traffic on the West Coast main line (WCML) – long-distance, commuter and freight. HS2 will pull the long- distance out of the equation and leave the other two to run on the current line.

“HS2 will give a transformational increase in capacity,” Andrew McNaughton explained. “Basically, as a dedicated passenger railway, we can carry more people per hour than two motorways. It’s phenomenal capacity. It pretty much triples the number of seats long-distance to the North of England.”

Removing the long-distance traffic will allow commuter and freight trains to run on all four lines of the WCML, hence increasing their capacity as well.

So what about speed? Does the new line have to be a high-speed railway?

“We had to study strategic alternatives, so we asked what would be the effect if High Speed 2 were built as a conventional railway, another 125 mile an hour railway? And the answer was we’d never build it because the benefits would only be about half but the costs would be 90% because we’d still be building the tunnels, the bridges, the viaducts, the overhead line, the track and the signalling. In cost terms, the difference between a conventional line and a high speed line is less than 10% for new line but we have double the benefits, so it’s not a difficult decision.”

More politics

Two months after Lord Adonis published his command paper, the Government changed to a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition, and the project got it’s third Secretary of State in 18 months. Philip Hammond presided over a reassessment of the proposals and the costs were referred to a strategic spending review.

Many questions were asked. Were the stations in the right place? Should the route go via Heathrow? Was the Y Route to Birmingham that then split to Leeds and Manchester the correct one? Every aspect was reviewed, and then reviewed again.

Andrew McNaughton and his team justified not routing the new railway through Heathrow. It would advantage just 2% of passengers, and disadvantage 98%.

“From our point of view, it was brilliant,” Andrew continued. “Because, when Philip Hammond stood up in the House of Commons in December 2010 and said he was now requiring us to take this to public consultation, it meant we knew that we had produced a report which withstood the examination of both a Labour-led administration and a coalition administration. So the leading politicians of all three principal political parties had subjected our work to review and had accepted it.

“We felt pretty good about that, which sustained us through six months of public consultation over the spring and early summer of 2011. We had the public consultation and the public responded. It was the biggest public consultation in the history of this country with 55,000 responses. We spent the rest of 2011 checking through them one by one and making recommendations to, by that stage, our fourth Secretary of State, Justine Greening. And she announced, in January 2012, her decision on the first stage of the route.

“We made some detailed changes to the route from early feedback from affected communities. We put some more bends in the route to take it away from some communities, we started to lower it and removed some of our more ambitious viaducts. She added some changes that she thought were right having considered all the public consultation.

“Justine Greening’s particular ambition was that, if this railway was going to be around for 150 years, it was going to be a high-quality railway and, if that meant a couple more tunnels, it meant a couple more tunnels, and that’s just fine because ultimately it’s the Secretary of State’s railway, not our railway.

“So around 46% of the route got adjusted in some fashion as a result of that public consultation. Some of it was just a couple of metres up or down… particularly down in the ground a bit more. Some of it was a bit more, but actually 46% of the route was changed in some way as a result of the consultation. So public consultations do actually have an impact.”

The final result was therefore a combination of engineering design and political compromise – a balance of benefit, cost and impact. The benefits could be identified – journey times and frequency of service. Reliability came across as being very important – not only being able to travel from Manchester to London in an hour and a quarter, with a service every 20 minutes, but to be able to do it reliably, every time. The sort of reliability that the Japanese have shown can be achieved.

Impact can also be assessed. How many people live within earshot of the route? What will the effect of noise be on them, both during construction and when the line is in operation? What sites of special scientific interest will be affected, and to what extent? And what historic buildings or archaeological remains are on the route?

The final route chosen was one which, outside of London, would require one building to be demolished for every kilometre. In the most crowded nation in Europe, that’s very low. In addition, HS2 will purchase more properties which would be badly affected by construction noise, but these can be sold on once the line is open and overall noise levels drop.

Preferred route

At the end of the day, Andrew was very pleased with the final choice. “Discussions about what was the right route were entirely around the balance of benefit, cost and impact,” he commented, “and that stood us in good stead when we went out to public consultation. The Secretary of State’s preferred route, which was the same preferred route as the previous Secretary of State of a different political hue, was the one which actually had the lowest cost of the shortlist. It also had the highest benefits and, objectively, the impacts were no greater than any other route.”

Of course, people will always complain. Phase 1 will go from Birmingham to London, but it will miss Coventry. Phase 2 will miss Derby and Nottingham, passing almost exactly between them.

“The objective of High Speed is to connect up Metropolises,” countered Andrew. “In a city like London, if you channel everyone through one station, you overload the network. So that’s why we end up with two stations.

“For a region like the West Midlands, you actually need to serve the whole region and we placed the station on the outskirts of the West Midlands region which people could get to easily. That’s a city region of around four/five million people.

HS2Viaduct

“We passed by some fairly big cities like Sheffield, like Nottingham, like Coventry. Those places are not destinations that you can take a whole train to and ever fill it up. You can serve on your way to other places.

“We have followed what others have done round the world; you take the line pretty close to the city, you build a station at a good interchange point. Other cities get a better service on the classic network. So Milton Keynes, for example – we don’t go anywhere near Milton Keynes – it sees a dozen trains an hour at the moment and ten of them go straight through. In the future, they will all stop, giving a better service.”

So the route is planned, designs have been drawn up, and it now all waits on Royal Assent of the Hybrid Bill. But even the detailed design had its complications. With the speed that technology advances, how does one design a railway that won’t be finished for another ten years?

“If you look, speed has increased progressively over the years,” Andrew stated. “High Speed 1 was opened at 300km/h, it was designed ten years previously. By the time it was opened, the rest of the world was designed for 320. Those lines were opened – by the time they were opened, the rest of the world was designing for 350. There’s always a huge time lag between making the decision about what you’re designing and actually opening. “Other countries have been designing for 400 for several years and so have we. We don’t open at 400, we open at 360 because, at the time that we’d done the calculations, the increased speed had a very small effect on cost but the benefits were many times greater. So the more we could reduce the journey time, the better the business case. We already can see and touch and travel on a train that would travel at that speed so the technology exists, and is just coming into service. Frankly the world will move on but we’ve designed something that is capable of being upgraded.”

It’s the same with signalling systems. The design calls for ETCS level 2, which is proven technology. If level 3 comes along before 2025, then it can only improve capacity, but the current design is based on level 2.

So that’s how HS2 has got to where it is today, waiting for Government approval to actually get started.

What happens after, that is a story for another day…