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High Speed | Designing HS2 for the future

High Speed 2 (HS2) promoter HS2 Ltd is embracing its newness and taking the opportunity to rethink every stage of the design process.

It’s doing this to maximise its efficiency and cost effectiveness. And above all, its team wants to produce a product that goes far beyond being just a new railway.

HS2 Ltd is striving to become a design exemplar. This new company is adopting a fresh new take on the way that rail is being designed and procured in the UK and is filled with expertise from across different industries to form a “melting pot of ideas”.

So says Kate Hall, HS2 Ltd’s design lead and director of built environment. 

It is these ideas which it – and she – is hoping will make the new line, between London and the West Midlands in phase one and between the West Midlands, Manchester and Leeds in phase two, part of a high speed network from which other countries around the world will want to learn.

euston visual

Euston vision

Euston: Computer design of the High Speed 2 terminus

It is a tremendous opportunity. But also a huge challenge, not least because this is a project which will be in construction for years. As such it has to challenge the design process to drive innovation forward and not just accept technologies which are used today.

“We’re building a railway that’s going to be running in 2026, and we’re designing today,” explains Hall. “So what does that mean? What will it look like? What can we anticipate about how design is going to change? These stations will be around for 150 years so you’ve got to design in flexibility,” she adds.

There are a number of initiatives that HS2 Ltd has put in place in an attempt to meet its design aspirations.

Design vision

The first is a design vision, with the mantra: “designing for people, place and time” (see box). Hall says that this vision is all about adapting the design to the needs of future generations.

“Already you’ve got Google Glass and in Korea you can do your shopping on the platform screen doors; that’s the technology you can do today,” she enthuses. “How can you incorporate the best of technology, flexibility, and the best design for HS2?”

This question is the basis for the passenger profiles which HS2 Ltd has built up to give a tangible insight into the needs of the end users. These profiles are based on actual users, from people with small children and buggies; the visually impaired and wheelchair users; and people with large amounts of luggage. 

If you follow in the footsteps of the people and you live it, you realise that what is written in the standards – although best practice – may not be the best solution

Kate Hall, HS2 Ltd

Designers are not just given pieces of paper describing their needs, but actually spend the day with these people travelling on the existing transport networks learning what works and where facilities could be improved.

“If you follow in the footsteps of the people and you live it, you realise that what is written in the standards – although best practice – may not be the best solution or be practical,” says Hall. “The barriers out there might be different.”

She cites the new Birmingham Gateway. “In the new, New Street station they’ve got a place for guide dogs to go and relieve themselves and they’ve got a multi-faith prayer room, which I think is great,” she says.

Curzon Street

Curzon Street

Curzon Street station: Terminus in the centre of Birmingham

Alongside the design vision is an independent design panel (see p38). Hall says that normally projects consult on design at detailed design stage when they are about to dig a hole in the ground, but what HS2 Ltd has proactively done all the way through the project is go out and talk to people before things are confirmed.

“The point of going out early is that it’s not firmed up, so your voice counts and what you say will impact on what goes on ahead,” says Hall.

“It’s our critical friend and it’s challenging us to make sure the project goes from good to great,” she says. “It’s a great way of getting the better minds across the country to review the project. 

Passenger experience

“It’s not just a review of the concrete finish or a bridge’s aesthetics, it’s a review of our processes. We’re reviewing passenger experience. This is not your typical infrastructure project, which is just concerned about building a system, it really is about people.”

The team is also working with the Canary Wharf innovation team, which is handily situated in the same building, to share ideas between the industries. 

Behind the scenes this team’s function is to come up with new ideas to improve future developments and then test them out in the Canary Wharf area for six weeks. If the schemes are successful they can then be rolled out.

Ruthless client

“It is a ruthless client, so in terms of: ‘That’s a good idea, but run it, prove it and show the benefits of it’,” says Hall. “We can piggy back on something which you know isn’t just theory on a bit of paper, it works and you could roll out.”

Hall also says that HS2 is unique because HS2 Ltd is not only building it, it will operate and maintain it. This simple continuity between the different phases of the project has had a profound impact on the core ways in which it is being designed and procured.

“Usually a client commissions a bridge, station, railway and then moves off. We’re going to operate it so we really care about whole life cost and the maintenance and dealing with the issues,” she says. 

Future maintenance

This is filtering into the design process with the lines being designed for future maintenance in mind.

“A lot of the route touches the ground as it’s either on it, in it or above it, and there are a huge amount of earthworks, so how you treat your side slopes is very important,” says Hall. “You don’t want trains running slow because there are leaves on the line.

“So we’re designing in how the landscapes are right for the communities, but are also sensible and feasible to maintain.”

Overall, the HS2 Ltd vision is to provide a new railway that provides for the communities it serves and brings regeneration to the areas along its route. The “people place and time philosophy” is being lived and breathed by the team and it is hoped that this philosophy will make the HS2 project a design exemplar.

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