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Comment | We need to delegate creativity

Mark Hansford

Rail (in)capacity was back in the headlines last week with the naming & shaming of Britain’s most crowded trains. Taking the top two places in the inglorious roll of honour were two services between Manchester and Scotland now running at almost double capacity.

Commuter routes into London completed the top five, while all of the top 10 most overcrowded journeys were in or around London and Manchester.

The news incited more accusations of government inaction and incompetence - accusations rail minister Claire Perry promptly pushed straight down the chain, saying how she expects the rail industry, including operators, “to continue to develop innovative proposals to meet the capacity challenge head on”.

HS2 Euston

Super. So who’s up for coming up with these “innovative” proposals? Who’s truly ready to think big?

Arguably not High Speed 2 (HS2) promoter HS2 Ltd, whose latest proposals for a staged reconstruction of Euston station - revealed this week - were instantly slammed by Camden Council, in whose borough Euston is located, as uninspired and unimaginative.

Camden fears the proposals, which now involve Network Rail redeveloping the parts of the station not directly affected by HS2 at its own pace, will mean residents and businesses suffering decades of disruption, only to end up with a disjointed and disconnected terminus.

Where are the big ideas for real space and seat-creation?

Double deck trains is one idea; indeed transport regulator Office of Rail and Road head of asset management Marius Sultan pitched it at our UK Rail conference back in June.

But that day the audience was one largely made up of well-established directors and business leaders. Are they the ones with the answers? Or are the answers to be found in the tech-native, knowledge-hungry new entrants into engineering?

That notion was reluctantly accepted by another audience of business leaders, this time joining NCE for a round table debate this week on delivering rail efficiencies. The notion was posited by Chris Dulake, latterly Crossrail’s tunnelling technical guru and now High Speed 2 Phase One engineering director, and a man who knows a thing or two about finding solutions to complex problems. He pushes all his problems down to his more junior charges. They’re the problem solvers. You just have to trust and support them.

How you go about doing that is a challenge, and it’s something we’re going to be exploring at another round table debate next week, so all thoughts welcome in advance.

It feels like we are on the cusp of a technology-led technical revolution. Whether it is Formula One-style virtual build and test simulators, as being promoted by Laing O’Rourke and reported in NCE this week, or the extraordinary tale of the Canadian effort to develop a 20km high elevator, advance is there for the taking. Now we need to find and empower the people who are going to make it.

  • Mark Hansford is NCE’s editor

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