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Comment | Engineers: ahead of the infrastructure game

Mark Hansford

Rarely a week goes by when NCE’s post bag is not filled with letters challenging the wisdom of the £42.6bn High Speed 2 (HS2) project.

The route is wrong; we’re starting from the wrong end; better signalling would solve the capacity problem; we need roads (and autonomous vehicles) not railways; broadband is the answer; it’s just too darned expensive. These are all common, and in many cases, reasonable arguments.

Indeed, even this column has flip-flopped a little from supporter to sceptic as new reports and ideas emerge for and against the scheme.

High Speed 2 Birmingham

As much as anything else it has been frustrating that the project’s promoters have been relatively silent in speaking up to our critical engineering audience.

So it is great that HS2 Ltd chairman Sir David Higgins has this week chosen to speak to you all directly, via NCE, to address some of the most commonly held concerns.

And ultimately the point he seeks to make “with all the force [he] can muster”, is that not since the motorway-building era of the 1960s has a generation of politicians been clearer about the fundamental productivity problem we face as a country and what is necessary in terms of infrastructure to address it.

Yes, he says, there will always be room for debate and there will always be a wish to start with a blank page; “to stop the world until we have got the perfect answer”. But that is wishful thinking - expensive wishful thinking.

As Higgins says, Crossrail will bring huge benefits to London when it opens in two years’ time, but it should have done so a long time ago. It was first conceived in 1880, but shelved because somebody thought there was a better solution, not once but several times. When it opens it will be just 140 years late and many billions of pounds more expensive.

Time and again, whether it has been Crossrail or Thameslink, we engineers have known what needs to be done - and then dithered. The result has not just been lagging infrastructure but rising costs, he adds.

But tackling our productivity problem is not just about tackling our capacity problem but also our connectivity problem. This is even more serious, says Higgins, because we have come to accept delay, unreliability and poorly designed infrastructure as just the way it is. That “fatalism” is the British disease, he says.

He makes a compelling argument. He notes that as engineers we pride ourselves on our ability to solve complex problems. That’s true. He observes that while others talk, we do. That’s true too.

Yes, the productivity puzzle in this country is a complex problem. HS2 is not a panacea, but it can help solve it. Higgins says that we, with the backing of parliament, are going to do it.

  • Mark Hansford is NCE’s editor

Readers' comments (1)

  • The problem is not the need but the vision, HS2 is potentially a core UK transport spine in 50 years time as we leave behind oil and the internal combustion engine. That transition as we change out some 31M cars and hydrocarbon fuel becomes expensive and refining capacity and fuel availability decreases means that the UK will be reliant on nuclear powered electric rail for some years; simply work out the logistics requiring the modification of so many vehicles to understand the issue even if there was a simple fix that made it possible to convert an engine and provide enough fueling points to meet demand.

    HS2 is simply not big enough and lacks a true vision that the relatively small but highly populated UK can stand behind. The UK has repeatedly failed to invest in infrastructure and HS@ in its current guise is more of the same. include local and freight lines in each direction as the very least and remove spurious arguments such as efficiency and productivity gains from the argument to ones we can understand, a future beyond oil.

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