This month it is fitting to return to the opening of David Briginshaw’s first This Month column as IRJ’s editor-in-chief in February 2001. That month David succeeded Mike Knutton, who was IRJ’s editor for 19 years. 19 years and one month on, change is once again the order of the day.
David has decided to step back from the role of IRJ’s editor-in-chief but will remain involved as consulting editor and associate publisher. David has done so much to maintain and grow IRJ’s status as a key source of news and information for the railway sector, in both his time as editor and 37 years with the publication. He is IRJ’s most passionate flag bearer and his experience will remain invaluable as we continue to report and respond to the challenges and, indeed, changes, facing the rail sector today.
While David’s first column reported on the British sector’s willingness to dispose of valuable railway knowledge and skills, the perils of which became tragically apparent in the fall of track owner Railtrack the following year, this month we report on a landmark decision that will do much to sustain a new generation of rail engineers.
The British government’s reaffirmation of HS2 is a shot in the arm for the industry and was rightly met with elation by key players when the news broke on February 11.
The controversial project to build a 338km high-speed network from London to Birmingham and the north of England in three stages over the next 20 years, which various governments have touted over the last decade or so, appeared to be heading to the buffers at the turn of the year. Leaked information from the Department for Transport-sanctioned Oakervee Review of costs spiralling to £106bn seemed to lay the groundwork for the government to scrap the project.
To do so would have been disastrous. HS2 promises both faster journey times between London and the north and, critically, will free-up capacity on Britain’s congested main line network. More regional trains will be able to stop at more stations, improving connectivity across vast swathes of the country. HS2 is clearly the right project. However, its execution had left it on life support.
But with northern leaders banging the drum for the project, and the new Conservative government determined to push ahead with infrastructure investment, particularly in the north of England where it gained seats in the December election, HS2 has new impetus. It is important that the project now learns from the mistakes of its chequered past to make sure it gets over the line.
“The British government’s reaffirmation of HS2 is a shot in the arm for the industry and was rightly met with elation by key players when the news broke on February 11.”
In his address to parliament confirming that HS2 would proceed, prime minister Boris Johnson vowed to instil a new discipline in HS2 Ltd, the state-owned company charged with overseeing the project. A new HS2 minister and oversight committee will provide additional support as the government strives to keep costs down. This is a good sign.
However, it is at Britain’s Department for Transport itself where the biggest changes need to take place. Extensive reports and accounts of over-engineering and piling risk onto the supply sector have filled the national trade press in recent months and is considered the source of much of the project’s ballooning costs. Revisiting these plans and introducing sensible engineering solutions should be top of transport secretary Mr Grant Shapps’ and the new HS2 minister, Mr Andrew Stephenson’s, to-do list.
Encouragingly, Johnson spoke of HS2 not as a separate entity but part of an integrated transport network, connecting with bikes and buses, and other rail lines. He gave the green light to proceed with Northern Powerhouse Rail, the proposal to develop improved east-west rail links between cities in the north of England, under the mantra High-Speed North. He also said the government would explore ways to speed up the programme.
But why stop there? This struck me as I stood on the platform at St Pancras Station on February 4 having just disembarked the first direct Eurostar Amsterdam - London service, a little shy of two years since I took the first train in the opposite direction.
Shapps was on hand to greet the train. And in his speech of willingness to engage with Europe post Brexit, he touted future Eurostar services to Geneva, Bordeaux, Spain, and even Portugal.
Anyone entering or leaving St Pancras via a Eurostar can clearly see the short links to the East Coast Main Line and North London Line, which connects with the West Coast Main Line, the route that HS2 will supplement. With HS2 now on its way, why limit future cross-channel connections to just trains departing from London? Why not connect these railways - as was initially planned - and run Birmingham - Paris, and Manchester - Brussels services, and why not encourage other operators to run these trains?
Britain’s first experiment with high-speed - HS1 - has arguably been a missed opportunity. Eurostar remains the sole cross-channel operator despite German Rail’s (DB) much publicised trials in October 2010. While Eurostar touts its proposed merger with Thalys as the means to deliver a northern European high-speed network, why should they do this alone? It is time to review the arduous regulations that restrict operation through the Channel Tunnel to 400m-long trains. Allowing 200m-long sets to run singular or in multiple would make this a far more attractive proposition.
With a strong appetite for more rail transport in response to climate change, we should do everything we can to maximise the benefits of major infrastructure projects like HS2 and all but eliminate short-haul flights. Better integration, indeed, smooth transitions, should be the first priority for all concerned.