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Lost opportunities for future generations

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The 2012 High Speed Rail White Paper noted that many nations have high speed rail lines, transforming their economies, and that not building such lines means Britain loses out while our global competitors gain. Doing nothing leaves UK rail networks over-burdened and risks lost business, lower growth, and fewer jobs. HS2 was an essential part of raising regional productivity to create jobs, skills, and talent. For 15 years, this was cross party consensus under six Prime Ministers, with Rishi Sunak supporting HS2 during his Tory leadership campaign.

As we explain, HS2 is the result of years of planning. It was to serve eight of the UK’s 10 largest cities and release large amounts of capacity on the West Coast, Midland, and East Coast main lines. This huge increase in capacity offered significant improvements in local services and more freight trains. It would have given rail the capacity to accommodate the modal shift needed to significantly reduce the nation’s carbon transport emissions.

Yet polls show that HS2’s supporters are outnumbered two to one by its opponents who consider it wrong to spend billions just to save minutes off the journey time from Birmingham to London. HS2 and the DfT bear the responsibility for this narrative as little was done to explain HS2’s huge benefits during the early project phase.

Hence, Sunak’s decision to cancel HS2 between Lichfield and Manchester was announced as an act of political showmanship at the Tory Party Conference. This masqueraded as a strong, long-term decision as “the facts around HS2 have changed”. Yet, as we show, the facts have not fundamentally changed. Replacing a strategy built up over 15 years with expert input by the hastily put together Network North plan that leaves many questions unanswered is not long-term decision making. It also reduces that nation’s standing with international investors.

Network North includes projects already promised, like the West Yorkshire Metro, and some already completed! It is said to be funded by the £36 billion saved from cancelling HS2 phase 2, yet most of this money was not to be spent until the 2030s.
This decision leaves a major gap in the UK’s rail strategy around which city regions have based their economic growth plans. It is also one that is extremely hard to reverse as land is being sold and route safeguarding removed. Capacity on the remaining HS2 phase one line is permanently constrained by a small HS2 Euston station which will only be built if private finance is available. Getting the best from what remains requires a London terminus designed to maximise the line’s capacity rather than arbitrarily specifying six platforms. Clearly maximising benefits has not been considered.

It is also a decision that irrevocably denies future generations outside London the opportunities presented in Europe by a high-speed rail network.

Though HS2 has been criticised as being expensive, innovative techniques are being used to reduce costs. Bob Wright explains how the modular design of HS2’s Thame Valley viaduct enables most of its structural elements to be constructed off-site. HS2 has also successfully pursued its environmental targets. As we report, it is the first UK transport sector client to achieve PAS 2080 accreditation for whole life carbon management.

Sustainability, environmental protection, biodiversity, social value, community support and engagement, rare sheep, and bees all feature in the new £200 million rail village that Siemens has constructed on its 67-acre site in Goole. Though the train manufacturing plant is not expected to commence work until March, we describe how components such as gearboxes and traction motors are already being overhauled there.

Overhauling diesel shunter gearboxes was one of Andrew Skinner’s first jobs as a railway engineering sandwich course student. His career, advice to young engineers, and challenges faced by the industry were the topics in his IMechE Railway Division Chair’s address. One of Andrew’s key messages is that the railway is a tightly integrated system. This was also the theme of a comprehensive feature by Malcolm Dobell on improving passenger ride comfort.

Gauging to ensure that trains can fit through the infrastructure is also a system issue for which the lack of infrastructure gauging data is problematic. We report on how it is now possible to use in-service trains to regularly collect this data and how artificial intelligence is being used to input the resultant large amount of data into a new gauging database. In this way the lack of gauging data should soon be a thing of the past.

ETCS is also a system issue requiring compatibility between train and trackside equipment. Though it is intended to be interoperable, £140,000 per cab is now being spent to upgrade the ETCS-fitted Thameslink Class 700 trains for the East Coast Digital Programme. This raises potentially costly issues of backwards compatibility for the large-scale ETCS rollout. Clive Kessell considers this, and other ETCS cost issues.

Crucial to ETCS operation is a reliable radio system. With GSM-R fast becoming obsolete, its replacement by FRMCS needs to be considered. Paul Darlington describes the issues associated with possible migration strategies. He also considers the benefits of Wi-Fi 7 which is expected to be available next year.

The worrying increase in signalling wrong side failures following signalling maintenance works indicates that memories of the lessons from the 1988 Clapham collision are fading. Hence, Network Rail is working with the IRSE and its contractors to ensure compliance with the Signal Maintenance Testing Handbook (SMTH). This includes programmes to reinforce the attitudes and understanding as well as improved training materials and assessments.

The contrast between HS2 and the Liverpool and Manchester Railway which opened in 1830 is evident from Graeme Bickerdike’s informative feature on its original route from Liverpool Crown Street to Edge Hill. Another early railway was Brunel’s line through Dawlish which is particularly vulnerable from both sea and cliffs. Mark Phillips describes the complexities of building a rockfall shelter as rock bolted netting does not provide sufficient protection.

These early railways were the first of over 35,000km of railways built in the 19th century which transformed the nation’s economy. British engineers also built many railways outside the UK. In respect of the high-speed rail revolution, this situation is reversed. Japan built its first high-speed line in 1964, followed by France in 1981. Worldwide there are now 58,000km of high-speed lines, yet Britain’s high speed network is now to be permanently limited to 320km. What would our forebears have thought?

David Shirres BSc CEng MIMechE DEM
David Shirres BSc CEng MIMechE DEMhttp://therailengineer.com

Rolling stock, depots, Scottish and Russian railways

David Shirres joined British Rail in 1968 as a scholarship student and graduated in Mechanical Engineering from Sussex University. He has also been awarded a Diploma in Engineering Management by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

His roles in British Rail included Maintenance Assistant at Slade Green, Depot Engineer at Haymarket, Scottish DM&EE Training Engineer and ScotRail Safety Systems Manager.

In 1975, he took a three-year break as a volunteer to manage an irrigation project in Bangladesh.

He retired from Network Rail in 2009 after a 37-year railway career. At that time, he was working on the Airdrie to Bathgate project in a role that included the management of utilities and consents. Prior to that, his roles in the privatised railway included various quality, safety and environmental management posts.

David was appointed Editor of Rail Engineer in January 2017 and, since 2010, has written many articles for the magazine on a wide variety of topics including events in Scotland, rail innovation and Russian Railways. In 2013, the latter gave him an award for being its international journalist of the year.

He is also an active member of the IMechE’s Railway Division, having been Chair and Secretary of its Scottish Centre.


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