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High Speed | British export potential

high speed 1 trains

This year should be a huge one in the story of high speed rail in the UK – and the world.

Enabling works for the 225km phase one of High Speed 2 (HS2) from London to Birmingham were due to be let in March. An engineering design partner is due to be appointed, the Bill to construct the railway is expected to be enacted by late Autumn, and the nine construction packages, which contracting teams are in the middle of competing for will be awarded by the end of the year.

For the country, though, the story is not just about HS2 with its promise of new capacity along with freeing up existing lines for more passenger and freight services.  

There is a whole world out there and British engineers and British engineering businesses, thanks to HS2, are going to be in the forefront of the technology just at the time when countries including Malaysia, India and the United States  properly address their need for high speed rail. 

export potential chart

Export Potential

Above: Global high speed rail investment has increased substantially since the beginning of this century. Source: International Union of Railways

It is the most efficient way to move large quantities of people over medium distances compared to flying and driving – what else can compete with shifting 1,000 people over 100km plus 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. 

“The world is taking high speed rail seriously. Urbanisation demands it because it connects and distributes people in the most efficient way,” says Atkins HS2 director John McSheen.

“The aim is that the UK can become the new hub of high speed rail know-how. We are buying in knowledge at the moment to augment the tremendous capability we already possess in this country but as we further develop our skills, in depth, we can sell them on. In terms of export potential for the UK, it is huge.”

The world is taking high speed rail seriously. Urbanisation demands it because it connects and distributes people in the most efficient way

John McSheen, HS2 Ltd

Building HS2 will make it the turn of the British to be the high speed experts, following on from the Japanese, French, Germans, Chinese and latterly 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. 

The consortiums currently bidding for the HS2 packages all make a big deal of the skills they have within them from countries with well developed, modern high speed networks. As that knowledge transfers the UK can take on the reputation of being the high priests of high speed. 

The size of the prize in the global market a few years down the line could potentially be extraordinarily good payback for the £50bn investment that the British government is, hopefully, making in both phases of HS2. 

Trillion dollar market

In terms of potential project investment, the number being bandied about is around the trillion dollar mark at minimum just for infrastructure, depending on which schemes you pick to put in your high speed rail basket. But there is agreement that the opportunity for the UK is unprecedented and the timing is exactly right.

“We are trying to get the data on the size of it all, but you could say the opportunity is over $1trillion (£625bn),” says Peter Woodward, the Atkins professor of high speed rail at Heriot Watt University. “HS2 has come just at the right time for the high speed rail explosion and will allow the UK to capitalise on her high speed experience including research and development and new technology.  Wherever high speed rail goes in the future, we will have the technology and knowledge required to underpin it and become a major exporter of high speed experience.”

Advanced rail centre

Heriot Watt is in discussion with the Scottish government about setting up an advanced rail centre including a test facility that will allow it to analyse high speed rail and develop the most advanced numerical modelling techniques. 

And it has just started an MSc course in train and track systems. Woodward himself has just completed research looking at behaviour of railway track at high speed including the impact of high velocity on bridge decks. He is moving on to look at the application of pre-formed structures for high speed rail to enable it to be built more quickly. 

Universities around the country are similarly developing their high speed rail offering. And allied with the HS2 high speed rail colleges in Birmingham and Doncaster, some of the pieces are in place to develop the requisite skills in the UK for the new railways.

Building an army for HS2 phase 2

Those skills won’t all be available for HS2 phase one, but “we are building an army for 15 years down the line,” says Aecom UK and Europe transportation managing director Paul McCormick.

They should be coming out of colleges ready for phase two of HS2 between the Midlands and the northern cities, a confirmed route for which – barring any change of policy, should be announced this autumn. 

But they, along with colleagues from the tunnelling academies established for Crossrail, will also be available to travel around the globe to other high speed projects.

Export potential

For the consultancy sector there is expertise which has already been used for HS2 that can be snapped up by overseas clients to help develop their projects. 

“Early concept design, route alignment, documentation, environmental assessments, etcetera, all this we can already sell,” says Aecom business development director for transportation, Europe, Derek Holden. “HS2 is going to provide so many British companies with very good, solid high speed rail capabilities that they will be able to use overseas.”

Aecom is lead designer for HS2 phase one bidder Fusion –  a consortium of Morgan Sindall, Bam and Ferrovial. Aecom engineering director for civil infrastructure in Europe, the Middle East, India and Africa, Mark Raiss, is looking forward to using the skills of the firm’s own high speed rail design centre in Madrid, which has worked on 25% of the Spanish network, in support of Fusion’s extensive High Speed Rail experience.

Faster design speed

Design speed for HS2 is 400km/h, though running speed is likely to be nearer 350km/h.  That brings with it new quirks for rail designers he says. 

“Ground borne vibrations caused by the pressures of high speed trains create shock waves that have to be catered for, bridges have to be stiffer or they start vibrating under the dynamic influence of the trains and the geometry of the bends has to be right for higher speeds. We also need porous portals at the end of the tunnels so we don’t get sonic booms as the trains pass through them.

“HS2 needs the Continental experience and it is very important to the Fusion team that our Madrid designers have detailed, hands on experience that we in Britain can access.” 

High speed rail requires substantial investment, but Arup global rail director Colin Stewart believes that this high level of capacity cannot be achieved by alternative modes. “How many cars would you need to move the 1,000 plus people on each high speed train?” he asks. 

 The railway is about one third the land take of a motorway, though the capacity is the same.

Colin Stewart, Arup

“And the railway is about one third the land take of a motorway, though the capacity is the same. High speed rail can seem expensive per kilometre but for medium distance it doesn’t make sense to go up in the air and you can connect city centre to city centre, preferably by utilising brown field regeneration sites.” 

Cities need to be connected within themselves first to ensure they function. They can then be linked to each other to maximise the economic development potential for the urban areas and the country, he says. Rail is the obvious answer, and if you are building a new railway, why would it not be the up to date technology of high speed?

Around the world, demand and interest in what the UK is doing with HS2 is enormous. Stewart and other leading high speed engineers are popular interview candidates for local television whenever they visit places like Malaysia or Singapore for instance.

Question for the future

The big question for the future will be: will the UK’s reluctant traveller contractors be encouraged to follow their consulting partners overseas once they have some HS2 experience to sell?

“I do hope so,” says Holden. “When we go overseas we have often team up with contractors but rarely find ourselves talking to the British. It would be nice to have some back up from our compatriots.”

HS2 Phase 1 bidders

In terms of main civils works, there are reputed to be nine joint ventures (JVs) in total.  All JVs are chasing circa nine design and build contracts, worth between £750M and £1bn.

  • Costain/Strabag/Skanska, with Arup as designer and Typsa – also prequalified for enabling works
  • Balfour Beatty/Vinci/Systra, with Mott MacDonald – also prequalified for enabling works
  • Fusion (Morgan Sindall/Bam Nuttall/Ferrovial), with Aecom
  • and Amey – also prequalified for enabling works
  • Dragados/Hochtief/Morrison/Taylor Woodrow, with Capita and Ineco (Momentum Infrastructure) – also prequalified for enabling works
  • Carillion/ Kier/Eiffage, with Arcadis, Flint and Neill (Cowi)– also prequalified for enabling works
  • Laing O’Rourke/Murphy/FCC (LFM JV) – also prequalified for enabling works
  • Bouygues/Volker/Sir Robert McAlpine – (Align JV) – also prequalified for enabling works
  • Acciona/Sisk/Lagan – not prequalified for enabling works
  • Fluor/Sacyr – announced 13/01/16 & bidding for civils work only

high speed 1 trains

high speed 1 trains


Arup, Mouchel and WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff have won design contracts worth a combined £150M for HS2 phase two between Birmingham and Crewe.


Potential markets


Apart from the 543km of high speed planned for the UK,  in Europe alone 10,272km are planned across Portugal, Sweden, Russia, Poland, Spain, France and Germany according to figures from Spanish contractor Dragados. Track that is constructed, or under construction covers 10,280km.

United States

There are plans for around 30 schemes for high or higher speed rail (between 125mph and 220mph) in the US including the Texas Central railway between Dallas and Houston, the All Aboard Florida line from Miami to Orlando, the Connecticut High speed rail line and next generation high speed rail in the north east corridor including between New York and Boston. 

The central section of California high speed rail from Merced to Bakersfield operating at speeds of 350km/h is under construction with the intention to build the whole 840km line from Los Angeles to San Francisco by 2029. 

Phase two, for which there is no start or finish date yet, will take the line to Sacramento in the north and south to San Diego making a total length of 1,300km. 

high speed trains

high speed trains

High Speed on the go


China has 19,000km of track in service and is planning another 30,000km by 2020, although the pace of investment has slackened.

South East Asia

Official agreement was reached to build the 375km Kuala Lumpur-Singapore high speed rail project linking Malaysia and Singapore in 2013. Construction was due to start last year, but was pushed back to 2017, with completion in 2022. 


In December 2015 India and Japan signed memoranda of understanding for the development of a Mumbai-Ahmedabad high speed line using Japanese Shinkansen technology. 

The Ministry of Railways in September last year awarded contracts for three more high speed line studies: Delhi-Mumbai; Mumbai-Chennai; and Kolkata-Delhi, with the Spanish and French key players in the work. A study for a Delhi-Nagpur line is to be undertaken through an inter-governmental agreement with China.

There are at least 14 high speed rail corridor plans on the books on Indian Railways with experts estimating that India will need to build 10,000km of line. 

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