High speed rail is a far bigger opportunity than just High Speed 2 (HS2) – and it’s something we should be getting truly excited about.
For civil engineers the high speed rail opportunity is far more than just a £42bn project from London to the North. It’s actually a trillion dollar opportunity.
Because for the majority of civil engineers – the UK educated and based ones at least – yes, it will begin with HS2. HS2 is our shop window; our chance to show the world that we can deliver not just world-class infrastructure but, as Sadie Morgan puts it this month, world-beating infrastructure.
Morgan heads the 40-strong independent design panel that has the remit – handed down by transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin – to make HS2 the absolute best it can be. It makes it genuinely exciting and something everybody wants to be a part of.
Without question, Europe’s best engineering firms are all vying for a slice of it. You just have to look at the joint ventures already formed to compete for the civils works to see that – most a strong combination of UK stalwart and European giant. Maybe for those big UK players it as much about not conceding market share to their rivals as it is exploring a bold new world. And maybe for the big European players it is mostly an opportunity to break into the – in theory – booming UK infrastructure market.
But it should be seen as more than that: a chance to set the bar; and show the world what good high speed looks like. Because wherever you look worldwide – Scandinavia, the US, the Middle East, India, Australia – high speed rail is high on the agenda.
For the right journey it is hard to match – what else can compete with shifting 1,000 people over relatively long distances every three minutes? And in the developing world high speed rail will keep centres of population connected – just at the moment when world populations explode and there is the much predicted mass move to the cities.
Building HS2 will make it the turn of the British to be the high speed expert, following on from the Japanese, French, Germans, Chinese and the Spanish, who because of the rapid construction of their own 3,100km high speed network are currently the go-to people – certainly in Europe – for the latest expertise.
Universities around the country are developing their high speed rail offering. And allied with the HS2-backed high speed rail colleges in Birmingham and Doncaster some of the pieces are falling into place to develop the requisite technical skills the UK needs to be a leader in high speed railways.
But in many ways it is not about skills in technical delivery. It is about skills in selling the concept. Arguments still rage about the route – and indeed the very purpose – of HS2. The UK is not unique in facing these questions. So selling the value of the project – any project – remains a hugely important skillset to grasp. It’s not a skillset you get from studying maths and physics (important though a grasp of those subjects is); it’s one that is got from studying humanities, learning languages, and understanding politics.
It’s often said that an engineer’s role is to engineer and let the quality of the engineering speak for itself. I’m not sure that has ever been true; Brunel was as much showman as he was engineer. And it’s certainly not true today. We as a profession need to unite, tell the story and sell the vision – because there is a massive opportunity here that really should not be missed.