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Letters: HS2 – the big conundrum for the new government

HS2 Curzon Street aerial


The recent comments in your pages on High Speed 2 have been fascinating. However, nobody has really grasped the underlying truth. Our UK rail system has been on a 50 year dead cat bounce, supported by billion pound subsidies in the face of limited alternatives.

Times are changing. A world where we command door to door, driverless electric vehicles with our smartphone will be with us within a decade, delivering a fatal blow to our Victorian rail system.

However, fundamentally it makes sense to group more people together as they travel further. A rail-type concept can fill the gap between short distance car travel and long distance air travel.

Whether this is based on a new concept, such as Elon Musk’s Hyperloop, or adapting our existing assets, should be for us to direct.

If it is the latter, a good starting point would be a review of the fundamental assumption of platform to rail height; reduce the number of passengers per service from the hundreds to tens; have platforms only on sidings; and as a result increase the running speed and frequency.

It’s time for our civil engineers to take the lead on developing transport for the 21st century and beyond. Or are we just going to let Silicon Valley come up with the solutions for us?

● Sam Stephens (M)

One really must question the degree of thought that the anti-High Speed 2 lobby give to their alternative proposals when they make their familiar sweeping statements.

Matthew Moss’s assertion that “quadrupling tracks south of Solihull to the suburbs of west London is feasible as land is consistently available” totally ignores existing development (NCE 30 April).

Either side of the twin tracks through the towns of Warwick, Leamington Spa, High Wycombe and Gerrards Cross to name just four locations, this is certainly not possible without the wholesale demolition of homes and commercial premises.

I doubt if it would be “more likely to meet with the approval of the public” in these areas.

● Nigel Briggs (M)

The new government will have to find a way of finding £8bn for the NHS. I suggest that the budget for High Speed 2 (HS2) should be cut by £8bn, and the engineers charged with coming up with a sensible scheme with slower running speed, and possibly some intermediate stations.

The 300km/h speed for High Speed 1 is perfectly adequate for our small island, and would save costs all round, while providing sufficient capacity, which is the stated reason for HS2.

● Alistair Muir,

I have been following, over the past year or so, the correspondence in our magazine on the necessity or even desirability of High Speed 2 (HS2), ending up with Peter Darley’s polemic (NCE 12 March).

The most important thing that we all need to recognise is that the final decision on HS2 will be a political decision and not an engineering one. It may be taken by engineers or accountants or lawyers or whoever but they will be wearing a political hat and not a professional one.

For example, had we built HS2 30 years ago, would half of Scotland be wanting to leave the Union? I do not know but certainly that is not an engineering question.

Of more immediate importance, again an example, is the question of whether to tunnel sections of the line or run them above ground, or indeed the civil version of the military mission creep – “as we are already building a line from A to B, would it not be wise to extend to C or D because it would save money in the long run?”

Right now, there are discussions about whether we should prioritise the lines across the Pennines or across Scotland rather than concentrating on the north south line. These are undeniably political decisions.

As engineers, we do have an overriding responsibility. There have been three major reports into our industry and all of them have concluded that we, the public, are paying too much for a given output.

As far as I am aware, only one of the letters on HS2 so far published in the NCE, has reminded us that current projected costs are unreasonable in the context of other major international railway projects.

While we are certainly entitled to our views on this major project, our primary responsibility, as engineers, is to produce proposals which are real value for money so that the politicians, whoever they may be when not politicians, have the right tools to take informed political decisions.

● Brian Miller (F)

Stamp out wolf whistling shame

I’m surprised by the lack of comment from industry bodies including the ICE, in relation to the recent news article about a woman who was subjected to repeated sexual harassment and intimidation by construction workers from a building site.

Building sites represent the public facing part of our industry and any failings here tarnish and hinder the efforts we make to encourage women into this industry.

If the industry feels it cannot comment upon individual cases it can surely comment on the behavioural standards it expects from workers.

It can also comment on what the public should do if they are subjected to sexual harassment and intimidation by construction workers.

This is a call to the industry to stand up and be counted in stamping out this disgraceful behaviour wherever it is encountered.

  • Michael Woods (M)

Shared blame for skill shortage

The industry, political leaders and - dare I say it – the Institution, must take blame for the lack of apprentices in our industry today. But I was pleased to see the Editor is giving more attention to this serious skill shortage.

After retiring, I took up a post in my local college of further education teaching ONC and HNC students in civil engineering. It was good to give something back.

I could talk with genuine passion of the civil engineering projects I had been associated with and not just an academic approach dictated by the syllabus.

I came to realise that many of the students had had social, financial or other difficulties in gaining education and I appreciated what a gap further education was providing for a very vulnerable yet excellent cluster of people keen to develop their apprentice engineering skills – which were to a major extent being ignored by government and industry.

It was a delight to teach people who were grateful for the chance, interested, and, alongside their academic training, taking increasing responsibilities with their companies.

Many of the students had money taken out of their salaries or holiday deducted for coming to college – which in my view was employers getting very cheap staffing. No wonder we have shortages today.

If we are to encourage young people to go into becoming engineering apprentices, the profession must make apprentices welcome and give them the chance to go up the professional ladder. Government should help by giving educational grants to companies taking on apprentices.

The ICE should ensure syllabuses are relevant. And above all engineering should be seen as fun and rewarding.

  • Trevor Land (M),

Tackling cable corrosion

It was interesting to note from the latest inspection report of the Forth road bridge, that the installed dehumidification system appears to be causing in significant reduction in deterioration of the main cables.

It would be interesting to know whether the cracks propagating from corrosion pits in some of the wires are significantly the result of hydrogen embrittlement or not.

I note that their main inspection reference standard is produced by the Americans and it is good to note that international co-operation is taking place about what is obviously a specialised area of expertise.

I also note that the United States has nearly 50 major suspension bridges of which more than half are greater than 50 years old, which puts our difficulties with a handful of such structures into perspective.

It seems that the chemical environment and pre-erection existing residual cable tension were also probably large factors in the deterioration - as
gleaned from the generic US guidelines document.

However, it appears that hydrogen embrittlement may also be a factor in the deterioration.

I recall back in the 1960s and early 1970s experience of problems with such effects in both high strength friction grip (HSFG) load indicating washers and also with waisted Gilbert Roberts bolts, which suffered from micro-cracking as a result.

I note from the US document that this has now been corrected in modern high grade wire steel no doubt because of better procedures.

However, I wonder what other difficulties await the structural engineering community because of older steels which may have these kind of difficulties.

  • Steve Smith (M Retd)

Pay is the key to skills shortage

I refer to your Comment on the fact that in five years, the UK will be short of 450,000 graduates (NCE 19 March).

In the same publication, in a job advertisement on page 26 you will find one of the main reasons – remuneration. In it, the financial reward for a chartered engineer experienced in project management, design and construction is £36,000-£42,850.

What an insult. No wonder potential graduates and apprentices are looking askance at the profession for a career.

NCE and all concerned in the civil engineering profession must campaign for an entirely new wage structure.

  • David Hookway (F),

We are short of craftsmen too

At least 10 years ago I wrote an unpublished letter to the Editor outlining the need for apprentice training as there was a desperate shortage, and that this would continue.

This was not for the technical profession as is being heralded now, but for the training of apprentices who will become our craftsmen of tomorrow.

Apprentice engineers are all very fine, but without skilled joiners, bricklayers and the like, they will have no resources to demonstrate their talents.

So signing the EngTechNow charter will be like beating a hollow drum with no sticks, unless more focus is placed on training craftsmen through the traditional apprenticeships.

  • Godfrey Weir (M),

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