THE surprise election of a Conservative government with a working majority in national elections in Britain in May has significantly boosted the prospects for the construction of a second high-speed line. Indeed the new government says work will start on the 190km first phase linking London with Birmingham and Lichfield in 2017.


This was confirmed by Britain's secretary of state for transport, Mr Patrick McLoughlin, who was speaking in Leeds on June 1. "The general election was a massive vote of confidence in HS2," McLoughlin said. "HS2 is now a manifesto commitment of a government with a Commons majority. HS2 will be built - the full 'Y' network from London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds - with construction starting in just two years."

McLoughlinMcLoughlin says legislation for the construction of phase one is making good progress. The government deposited a so-called hybrid bill in parliament in November 2013, which will secure the powers needed to construct and maintain phase one of HS2 between London and the West Midlands, including powers to compulsorily acquire land.

"After being carried over from the last parliament, it was re-presented last week, and is bill number 1 for the new session," McLoughlin says. "The Parliamentary Select Committee looking at that first bill resumes shortly."

The government expects the bill to pass into law in December 2016. Although construction cannot begin until then, contracts for studies and preliminary works have already been awarded. HS2 plans to pre-qualify civil engineering contractors later this year, and send out invitations to tender in 2016 for tunnelling and construction packages worth around £1bn each. The objective is to complete Phase 1 in 2026, with Phase 2 from Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds finished by 2032.

McLoughlin also confirmed that a proposal by HS2 Ltd's chairman, Sir David Higgins, to extend phase one north of Birmingham to Crewe is being taken seriously. "I want to see if we can bring HS2 to Crewe faster than planned, subject to further analysis and a decision on the preferred route. I'm determined to deliver the benefits to the north as fast as possible. So I'll prepare a dedicated hybrid bill in this parliament."

McLoughlin was sanguine about opposition to the project which has mainly come from people living in the affluent Chilterns area northwest of London through which the new line will pass. "Big transport projects have always faced resistance," he says. "Back in the 1830s, the first legislation to build a new rail line from London to Birmingham was defeated. Thankfully the line was eventually built and today it's called the West Coast Main Line. Controversy needn't be a sign that the decisions you've taken are wrong, and that's certainly the case with HS2. The argument has been won: HS2 will be built."

McLoughlin also said that an announcement will be made on Phase 2 this autumn. "We're looking at ways of using the HS2 line to introduce faster regional services, and at the case for speeding up construction of the Sheffield to Leeds section," McLoughlin said.

"And we're moving forward with plans for a new high-speed rail link running right across the north from Liverpool in the west to Hull in the east, which will slash journey times, provide a substantial boost to capacity, and help bind the north together as a single, powerful economic force."

However, it is far from clear at this stage how much new construction would be needed for a Liverpool - Manchester - Leeds - Hull high-speed line, what the maximum speed would be, and therefore by how much journey times would be reduced.

HS2 Ltd's technical director, Prof Andrew McNaughton, set out the case for building HS2 and some of his aspirations for the new railway at Global Transport Forum's Smart Rail conference in Amsterdam in May. "The United Kingdom is a city-dwelling nation," he told delegates. "There are 41 million people living in city regions today and this will increase to 61 million by 2050." To put this in context, the country's total population was 52 million in 2008 and this is expected to reach 70 million by 2050.

He said cities are growing faster than ever before, but by becoming more densely-populated rather than expanding outwards. "We are trying to bring the city regions together to form one economic unit with a sort of high-speed metro," McNaughton explained. "We will have 18 trains per hour with 1100 seats per train."

Rail demand in Britain has doubled during the last 20 years from 735 million journeys in 1994-95 to 1.5 billion in 2012-13, while only 100km has been added to the national passenger network which stands at 14,500km. As a result many lines are reaching capacity which means trains are often overcrowded and it is increasingly difficult to operate trains punctually. HS2 is designed to relieve capacity on Britain's three north-south trunk lines the West Coast, Midland and East Coast main lines. "It will be the backbone of the nation," McNaughton said. "It must be highly punctual and available, and it must be more attractive than autonomous cars."

HS2 will cut journey times. For example, London - Birmingham will be reduced from 1h 24min today to 49 minutes, one hour will saved between London and Manchester where the journey time will be cut to 1h 8min, and London - Leeds will fall from 2h 12min to 1h 22min.

McNaughton believes HS2 must offer more than simply shorter rail trips. There must be a step change in people's current perception of rail travel, and he says stations will be critical to HS2's success. For example, he argues HS2 should not have ticket barriers, which have become commonplace at British stations. "Barriers tell you that you are a thief, so go away." HS2 must be welcoming and easy to use, particularly for disabled passengers.

Instead passengers will be guided from their origin to their final destination using their smartphones which recognise them if they have travelled before and will remember their preferences. The passenger's phone will be loaded with an i-ticket which will include information such as platform number, train door number, seat number, and any optional extras they have already selected. This conforms with the findings from HS2's online passenger panel which says it wants an inclusive, personalised service which is easy to use, intuitive and low-stress. "We want a 'wow' factor," the panellists say.

The online panel was launched in March 2014 by Transport Focus, Britain's public transport watchdog, and lasted for a year with panellists being set tasks each week.

"We recruited 40 panellists with a good spread of geographical distribution, age and gender, traveller types - commuters, business and
leisure - parents who travel with children, and some people with disabilities," says Mr Ian Wright with Transport Focus. "All were carefully screened and none were strongly opposed to HS2."

Key finding

A key finding was that a railway designed for the customer was more exciting than the idea of high-speed travel per se. Passengers say they want technological innovations on HS2 to address the following needs: 

  • the ability to do a whole range of things from their seat such as order food and drink, shop, plan journeys and activities, book tickets, have access to entertainment, and work
  • to create seamless journeys across all modes with one ticket
  • to have a seamless personalised booking system using electronic tickets and the ability to order additional services, and with easy luggage handling, and
  • ultimate comfort with wide trains, and large fully-adjustable seats.

Of the three traveller types, commuters consider themselves to be part of a club with the same views galvanised by a common understanding of their daily strife. Business travellers share some of the same needs as commuters but are more demanding and have higher expectations than either commuters or leisure travellers. The latter have a different mind-set from the other two. They are easy going and want to relax and would like family areas to be provided.

Ideally passengers would like to create a cocoon on-board the train, but failing that they would like to travel with like-minded people who behave in a similar way to themselves. All traveller types would prefer children and noisy groups to be isolated. High-quality connectivity was regarded as essential for all types of passenger to provide access to entertainment, information, and enable them to work.

Although technology may satisfy many needs, passengers still wish to interact with staff to provide reassurance, but staff should focus on customer service rather than checking tickets and policing trains, as tends to happen today.

"The online panel has been successful and we are currently looking to continue it for another year," Wright says.

McNaughton doesn't underestimate the challenge HS2 faces in delivering a railway fit for the 21st century. "It is very difficult to change an established industry, and we are still dependent on some ancient technology," he said referring to some railway mechanical engineering which still has its origins in the 19th century. "ETCS was developed in the 1990s and GSM-R is out-of-date - we don't want any of that. We want something designed for this century." Whether he will get it remains to be seen.