So far as many people are concerned, HS2 is a high-profile project that hasn’t started yet. True, there have been some route plans published, many of which are being criticised by those who live close to the proposed alignment. But then, no-one likes a railway at the bottom of their garden.

There have also been complaints from passenger groups who want the money spent on the classic network, improving capacity for commuters rather than allowing the fat-cats to travel from Birmingham to London ten minutes quicker. And also grumbles from the rail freight community whose trains won’t be allowed on the new lines at all.

On the other hand, other lobbyists are asking why, if it is all about capacity enhancement, the new railway won’t have four tracks instead of just two.

Then there is the fact that the new railway will terminate at Euston, with no access to HS1 and the continent, and will cause half of Camden to be flattened to accommodate it. But construction isn’t due to start until 2018 and not be complete until 2025 – if it doesn’t overrun badly as large projects tend to do. No doubt there will be a lot of changes in that time, if this expensive white elephant gets built at all.

The truth

As usual, there is a huge gulf between public perception, or at least what get’s reported in the ‘popular’ press, and reality.

Despite its name, High Speed 2 isn’t just about high speed – it’s about capacity. Pulling long-distance passenger traffic off the West Coast main line and onto a new railway will leave more room on the ‘old’ lines for stopping trains, commuters and freight.

And although construction won’t start until the Hybrid Bill to finally approve the new line gets Royal approval, probably around December 2016, a lot has already happened.

Designs are in place, contracts for preliminary works will be placed over the summer, staff have been employed, offices set up, and it is all systems go.

Rail Engineer spoke to chief engineer Andrew McNaughton at the end of last year (issue 133, November 2015) about all the work that has already been done since the project first came together in 2009. Now, chief executive Simon Kirby was asked to look forward, to talk about what plans are already in place and what still needs to be done.

It’s all about people

“This is a massive year for the programme,” Simon Kirby stated. “We have gone through the third reading in the Commons, and the bill is into the Lords. By the end of the year, we hope to be well on towards Royal Assent.

“What we’re doing, though, that no one has done before, is, in parallel with that process, to design and create the team that’s going to deliver the programme. We’re focused on delivering the programme as soon as possible for the best value for money.

“We’ve then got the whole work of procuring the civil contracts. That’s now well underway and that’s very much to engage the market in the design of the project. Getting royal assent will enable us to start the early work so we’ll be announcing early works contractors this year.

“If you look at the company itself, we’ve got an organisation now of about 1200 staff. Some will be temporary, as we need people to come in for a year or so to do a specific piece of work, but the bulk is people for the long term of the programme. We’ve got an average age of 31, and we’ve got 43 per cent women.

“We’re putting a lot of time and effort into defining the culture of the company, how do we operate, what are our values? We’ve recruited some really good staff just in that area to help us operate and behave as a new organisation. Because when you reflect back on what we’re doing, and Andrew will have taken you through quite a lot of this, this is new technology to this country.

“The one big thing I’ve learned in nearly two years in this job is high speed rail is different. Now that’s sort of obvious, but actually when you get out there and see a high speed railway actually on the ground, the technology is different, the track system is different, the overhead line is different, train control systems – ETCS – it’s very different.

“So when you think of the staff we need, and who are the partners we need in our supply chain, inevitably they’re going to be recruiting lots of new people because we’re not using solid state signalling, we’re using ETCS, it’s software-based so a lot of the skills will be different. That’s not to say some people won’t make the migration, of course they will, and we are looking for a balance of really strong railway engineering experience and new people and new suppliers, so it’s hugely exciting.”

There is no doubting Simon’s enthusiasm for both the project and his role in it. He is passionate about giving young people important jobs to do.

“You’ve got to really think about what we are as an organisation,” he explained. “We’re not an Olympics or CrossRail, we’re not a project that’s going to complete in five years. We’re a programme that’s going to design and build a railway over nearly 20 years, and then we’re going to operate it. Now who actually operates it is a decision to be made in the future, but the way we think is we’re creating a 50-year concession. So the people we recruit today will be the people who will operate and maintain the railway in 10, 15, 20 years’ time, so by definition we need a balance of ages.

“So we are putting a lot of challenge on our own team to recruit both experience but also to recruit on potential, rather than experience. This is about creating a younger, more diverse, workforce so we are writing job descriptions that enable people to be recruited on potential and having interview panels that actually do recruit on potential. We’re challenging ourselves and we’ve got people really putting some thought into that area, because attracting experienced people isn’t easy, but attracting experienced people who want to work on this railway in 20 or 25 years’ time is almost impossible, so you have to think differently at that point.”

With Britain not having built a major railway in a long time, and other countries having already built high-speed networks, it’s not surprising that HS2 is getting applicants from around the world.

“We are looking to create a world-class railway which by definition will be technology that exists around the world,” Simon continued. “But it’s about British jobs, so we have to strike the right balance. We have also got people on this project from all over the world, from all sorts of backgrounds and that’s one of the strengths, that’s why it’s a great place to work.”

Background and foreground

As well as some people coming from other high-speed rail projects around the world, it would seem obvious that technology will come in as well. Why reinvent the wheel when Japan, Spain and China are already running high-speed railways very successfully?

“First of all, building a new railway is different, whether it’s high speed or not,” Simon Kirby stated. “A lot of the things we’re doing are because we’re building a railway in 2016 rather than 1916. A lot of the things are different, the approach is different.

“France and Japan, they were the first to develop high-speed railways so their technology can be comparatively old. But they’re renewing that technology now, so we’ve got people who have spent a lot of time out looking at what exists round the world. So we have looked at
the early users of high speed rail in Japan and France. Then there is Spain, which has been building high-speed railways since 1992 and now has the second-biggest network in the world, and that’s technology mainly deployed in the early 2000s. Then there is China which has built 14,000 kilometres in the last nine years and which has the latest technology in some areas. Not in all areas, but some.”

Simon went on to differentiate between ‘background technology’ and ‘foreground technology’.

Background technology is the systems that the passenger, the customer, doesn’t see. ETCS signalling, clever traffic management systems, trains which report their own faults to the depots in advance. These are the building blocks of the railway and they will have to be robust. So HS2 doesn’t intend to be the first deployment for any of this technology. Although cutting edge, it must all have been used successfully somewhere else first to reduce risk.

Foreground technology is that which the passenger sees. Ticketing, passenger handling
at stations and on board the train, information systems and entertainment – the passenger experience. “We’re trying to delay those decisions as long as possible, because they should be leading edge,” was Simon’s comment. What is good practice today, such as video screens on the backs of seats, will be passé by 2026.

Simon Kirby. Portrait outside the old Curzon Street Station Entrance. Birmingham.

“The point is that, ten years ago, you couldn’t predict what your iPhone does now, so we shouldn’t even attempt to do that. We are starting to talk to some of the technology companies, but we’re trying to leave that as late as possible because my view is you’ll carry your digital space round with you. You won’t want anything in the train other than 5G or 6G, whatever we’re at, and a power socket, and a great experience.”

Railway technology

HS2 is going to be a high-speed railway. But even that leaves questions unanswered. How fast will it be? 200mph (320km/h) seems to be the norm now, but will it be in ten years’ time?

“First of all, this is quite a small country we’re in, so unlike Spain and China, where speed and journey time is key, this is about capacity and I think, being a bit critical, that wasn’t communicated very well in the early days of this project. It just wasn’t.

“So the reality is this is about capacity and connectivity with the existing network. Very few railways around the world have integrated in the way we’re going to integrate between the high- speed and classic rail networks from day one.”

While speed will obviously have an effect on capacity, and HS2 is being designed to run at speeds of up to 360km/h, braking, acceleration and dwell times will have as much effect on journey times as outright speed.

The infrastructure will also need to be bullet- proof as well as future-proof. It will need to cope with hundred-year floods and droughts, cold winters and hot summers, and the design team is coping with that challenge as well.

Looking good

And then, of course, there are those complaints from lineside neighbours. These have forced a lot of the route to be either underground or in cuttings while the more obvious parts have to look good.

“Having been to a number of railways around the world that are quite obtrusive, one of the focuses we have is creating a really well- designed, visually designed system,” Simon Kirby stated. “So we’ve created a design panel, 34 people that get drawn on for particular expertise, led by Sadie Morgan who’s from an architectural background. They’re independent of HS2 Ltd, they’re our guiding mind, assurers around great design.

“The focus we’re trying to put on it is not so much the stations, because the stations will go through local planning and they’ll be iconic and they’ll be what the cities want in terms of their station, but the viaducts, the fencing that people see right across the country. These features can be designed so they’re not obtrusive.

“As you know, most of the time when you look at a viaduct it won’t have a train on it, it’ll just be a viaduct which is going to be there for 150 or 200 years. Therefore, why can’t we make it an iconic design piece on its own? So that’s the focus.

“We want to go back to Victorian values and create great iconic infrastructure. It doesn’t have to cost any more, it really doesn’t, and you can make some very attractive ‘stone’ structures out of precast concrete.

“You can buy it now in modules that are built in factories and, if you go and look at the stations in Manchester on the new Metro link extensions, the Mancunian brick stations are all built in Derby. Interestingly, they’re hand-pointed but all the bricks are precast brickwork. It’s all moulded in a factory. If you look at the bridges on the Stafford bypass on the West Coast main line, they’re all precast. The bridge parapets are all made in a factory. They’re hand pointed to give that authentic look but you wouldn’t know the difference. But the cost, the speed of construction, is just massively different.”

Why high?

Some people have questioned whether a high-speed railway is strictly necessary. If a conventional railway, with a speed of, say, 140mph, were to be built instead. Wouldn’t that do just as well?

“Most of the characteristics are the same for any type of new railway, the aesthetics of bridges and the substructure are the same,” Simon replied. “One of the challenges we all have as an industry is taking people into the world of three or four per cent passenger growth and imagining what the industry looks like in 10 or 20 years’ time. Half of the trains out of Euston by the end of this decade will be full, and that’s with standing provisions as well. So we’d need a four track railway from Euston to Birmingham, not a two track one, because the speeds are slower and the capacity is less.”

But then why not build a four-track conventional railway instead of the twin-track HS2?

“Then the envelope would be much bigger and the cost would be greater. The land take would be greater and the viaducts would be twice the width. A lot of what we’re doing doesn’t matter if it’s high speed or not, a viaduct is a viaduct, a tunnel is a tunnel, two tunnels cost twice as much as one tunnel, so I’m not being smart but it would be a lot more, and the benefit probably would be marginal.

“In addition, to get the connectivity, you do need to get to the north of England more quickly or there would be no point. So when you look at the cost and the massive strategic investment of HS2, why shouldn’t it be a world-class system, a world-class railway? And world-class long- distance railways are high speed now.”

Removing the long distance passenger traffic from the existing West Coast main line will create a lot more capacity on the classic network. A lot more.

“We double the amount of commuter seats into London. We take 500,000 lorries a year off the roads with the freight capacity we create on the West Coast line because we’ve got high- speed trains on the high speed network.

“I think we do a great job in this country of running a railway that was built by the Victorians, we really do. With the capacity enhancements over the years, more people use it now than ever before. When you go around the world and look at what new railways look like, you do realise how things have moved on. If you go on the Spanish high speed network you’ll see it’s just different. It’s like going in a 1960s car or in a new car, it does the same thing but it’s just more efficient, it’s a better experience and I think when people experience high speed trains in this country, they’ll just see the difference and want more of it because it is just totally different.”

Planning construction

With Royal Assent not expected until the end of the year, which will release the construction funding, how much can be done in advance?

“All our findings from around the world show that, when people spend longer in design, they get the design right, they get the plan right, then they go and construct it in a much shorter duration and that’s what we’re going to do.

“So if you look at our civils durations that we had in the plan a couple of years ago, they’ve had about a year and a half taken out of them looking at international benchmarks. We have invested that time into the design to create a better and lower cost solution – something that has had more thought put into it.

“That’s what’s different about building a greenfield railway. Everything we’ll be constructing will be on our built environment.

When you look at the electrification of the Great Western line today in terms of piling trains and all that sort of activity, we won’t be doing that. Instead, we will be putting overhead line stanchions into substructures we’ve built, you drop them in, you fill them with concrete, waterproof them and go to the next one. If you look at international benchmarks, they do a mile a day of that sort of thing in a green field environment.

“And if you do have a problem, if you don’t quite do a mile, it doesn’t matter because you’re not handing a railway back to trains running the next day, you just come back, fix the problem, and carry on building.

“When you look at how the French and the Spanish have designed their high speed railway, they’ve designed them to be built. The only way you can do that is to bring the builders into the design to help you, so that’s really why we’re doing that at the moment.


“This year, we will award the early works contract packages which are earthworks, utility diversions, that type of work. We have to package those to an early works contractor and we’re tendering that at the moment.

Visuals for the proposed HS2 Euston Station.

“Then, for the main works, it’s a two stage design and build process. We will look in our ITT for all sorts of criteria of experience and skills. We’ll start by asking bidders how they would build a kilometre of track and the costs of it.

“Stage two is the big construction contract. So all we’re committing to at stage one is to give companies a design contract for a year, or whatever it is, and an incentivisation mechanism to get their costs to where we want them to be. Then, when we award the construction contract, which is after royal assent, we’ve got an incentivisation of pain and gain on it so they can make more or less money around how they perform in construction.

“So we’re looking for contractors who can do all of that, and we’re seeing international consortia form with British companies.”

Once a consortium has won a stage one package, and worked with HS2 to finalise the design, and have proved they can do it for the required cost, then they will be awarded a stage two contract. “It’s theirs to lose, basically,” was Simon Kirby’s comment.

The exact number of contracts is still being finalised. As well as the seven civils packages, there will be one for signalling, one (or more) for stations, one for traction power supplies, one for telecommunications and so on. But, at the end of the day, HS2 is unlikely to have more than 15 suppliers. The rest of the industry will be acting as subcontractors to those, but with the HS2 team keeping an eye on things to make sure standards are maintained.

Phase two

Of course, building the high-speed route from London to Birmingham is only the first part of the plan.

“Phase two is great because it’s the next phase of the project,” enthused Simon. “We’re mobilising a team for that now in Birmingham under a project director for that phase. In our civils tendering, we’ve put an option in for 2A (the extension to Crewe) because one of the things we get a lot of feedback on from the market is continuity of work creating efficient delivery. Phase 2A is 40 miles more of railway, and we’re going to put in our civils tendering an option for that phase, so when that goes through into construction it could ultimately be done by the same companies.”

Recruitment has started for phase 2B, from Crewe to Manchester and Birmingham to Leeds. Paul Griffiths has joined the team from Centro as development director for that phase of the work. Both phases 2A and 2B will need their own hybrid bills, and work on those is also underway.

Once those two phases are complete, Britain will have its new high-speed rail network connecting Manchester and Leeds with Birmingham and London. But what about to the continent?

“HS2 is about capacity and connectivity. The business benefit and the economic benefit to the country is about connectivity north to south. Creating a rail link in the way it was being done would have taken quite a lot of capacity out of the system, so we’re looking at different options to get people from Euston to St Pancras.

“Clearly, once you get beyond a certain journey time, people will always fly where time is premium, but that’s not to say in the future there won’t be a link. Who knows where the future will go? But the immediate solution will be an easy connection between Euston and St Pancras by 2026.”

So HS2 is well underway. Despite all the negativity and the doubters, it will happen. And with all the planning that is taking place, it won’t be late or overbudget. It may even be early…