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Letters: Why HS2 is not the best solution

The main point

HS2: High Speed is not necessarily low carbon

High Speed is not necessarily low carbon

In his letter (NCE 5 June), Jim Steer supports High Speed 2 (HS2) by implying that all options and alignments have been considered over a 12-year period. In fact, project promoter HS2 Ltd has not done this because it was not asked to do it. Its remit was not to enhance Britain’s transport network but to look at a new line from London to the West Midlands via Old Oak Common, with possible extensions beyond the West Midlands.

It did not investigate alternative proposals in detail, such as an M1-aligned spine route that would have offered enhanced interregional links, including across the Pennines, and full connection to the existing network, because these were deemed outside its remit.

It has therefore recommended a stand-alone high speed line focused upon London, but with no connectivity to most British towns and cities.

Steer is quoted in the same issue as asking whether it would be a good approach to re-start the whole process. The answer to this must be “yes”, if the proposals are wrong, even if they are wrong because of a flawed remit.

As HS2 Ltd did not question its remit, which came from politicians, it is perhaps no surprise that NCE’s readers don’t agree with their proposals. For Steer to argue that engineers are out of step with MPs misses the point. HS2 is not the best solution - economically, environmentally or socially - and there has been no proper debate. The reason we have a free press and a parliamentary process is to ensure that on balance the best decision is made for the whole of the UK. The fact that we seem not to have the best solution should be deeply worrying to all.

  • David Hirst (F),


Jim Steer’s defence of High Speed 2 (HS2) (NCE 5 June) lays bare many of the fundamental misconceptions behind the entire UK high speed rail initiative.

He represents HS2’s adoption of a 400km/h design speed as “future-proofing”, and he seems unaware of the many negative aspects of extreme speed. Energy use, and therefore CO2 emissions, rise with the square of speed; maintenance costs and technical risk increase by some higher exponential.

But most crucially, predication upon extreme speed has the effect of preventing integration between high speed line and existing network. Extreme speed dictates intrusive and expensive rural alignments where fierce opposition from locals - who will suffer greatly yet gain no benefit - is guaranteed, and where no meaningful integration can be achieved. It has prevented proper consideration of existing corridors - in particular the M1 - along which the high speed line would have much lower marginal impact, and where major populations exist (such as Luton, Milton Keynes, Northampton, Leicester and Coventry) that would gain greatly from the new connectivity that a high speed line would bring.

Steer is wrong to represent the speed issue as a binary choice between 400km/h and 200km/h, just as he is wrong to assert that HS2 is the best, and the only option for high speed rail in the UK. Design work undertaken for the alternative High Speed UK proposals, aligned alongside the almost equally direct M1, proves conclusively that a speed of 360km/h is achievable. With connections to the existing network at circa 30km intervals, all M1 corridor communities currently facing the prospect of being bypassed and blighted by HS2 would instead derive huge benefit.

High Speed UK has extended this principle of full integration across the entire national network. The timetable that we have developed shows not only step change improvement in journey times from a few select cities to London and Birmingham (which essentially comprises the HS2 offer) but even greater improvement across the entire network.

For a lower maximum design speed of 360km/h, the alternative plan achieves average journey time reductions of 40%. HS2 cannot get close to this; indeed, service projections contained in the recent HS2 Regional Economic Impact study indicate that HS2 will have the effect of slowing down journeys to many disconnected regional cities.

This is why most NCE readers are opposed to HS2, and why most MPs remain unaware of HS2’s huge faults. MPs should be able to rely on sound and objective advice from the railway industry and engineering professions to inform their decisions upon HS2.

Regrettably, the leaders of the profession - despite much critical input from rank and file engineers - have not given the correct advice. This is why HS2 is in such a mess right now.

  • Colin Elliff, civil engineering principal, High Speed UK,


Business: Small firms are specialists in flexibility

Simon Bourne makes a very good point about the very smart, innovative and risk taking engineers employed by French contractors (Letters 22-29 May). However, there is another point that is worth making.

On the Clackmannanshire Bridge foundations, where I was construction director of Seacore (UK specialist marine construction contractor), and Bourne was working for Benaim (UK specialist bridge designer), we were able to form a very productive partnership in which it was possible to propose innovative well engineered design solutions that we knew could be efficiently constructed with our specialist jack-up and drilling plant. Bourne was then able to convince Vinci to use these methods for a bid winning proposal.

The fact that Seacore and Benaim were both small companies at that time contributed greatly to our ability to fully understand the required engineering fundamentals and practicalities (and communicate these quickly to our colleagues, for their support).

Vinci - and other European contractors - have built up the tradition of risk taking based on sound engineering over a very long period, which has resulted in a total management structure that is comfortable with this exposed commercial situation.

I am not at all confident that the board members of UK contractors who have not enjoyed the privilege of working for small specialist units such as ours have the ability to quickly change to be as innovative and risk taking as Bourne is (rightly) encouraging them to be. When all the small UK companies have been absorbed into mega-mergers where will these abilities be fostered?

  • Peter Clutterbuck (M),


Profession: Getting to the root of the equality debate

I have nothing against encouraging more women into engineering, providing it doesn’t get bogged down in sexual politics. After all, women have for years been key workers in the construction and building world in the Far East.

Perhaps, we should also be enquiring as to why the great majority of academically qualified girls and young women are shunning engineering and opting instead for more people-oriented occupations, such as medicine, law, psychology and academia?

Is this because of systemic bias against them in the engineering industry, or less flexible work patterns to suit child care, particularly on site construction projects, or perhaps the image of civil engineering as often a hard, dirty and at times dangerous occupation?

Is it because females naturally tend towards the humanities rather than to the sciences, or are other factors at play?

Whatever it is, such qualified girls and young women do have a choice. Spare a thought, for those thousands of young people, the majority males, who have no choice, as a result of the persisting academic under-achievement of working class pupils in state schools during the past decade. These have little chance of a career in any white collar job.

Such under-achievement now follows through to higher education where young women now outnumber their male peers by about six to four. This trend itself has future socio-economic and employment implications likely to impact on both sexes.

  • David Yarwood (M),


Profession: Honk if you think Brunel is the greatest

In last Thursday’s special “This is our England” edition of the Sun, I was delighted to see that the results of a survey to find “the greatest historic English figure” put Isambard Kingdom Brunel in second place - below Winston Churchill - well above luminaries such as Lord Nelson, Elizabeth I and Charles Darwin.

But perhaps we should not get too excited. On the front cover there were pictures of personalities who sum up England today. And in a prominent place, there was Peppa Pig.

  • Graham Cannon, Worms Eye, 52 Bank Parade, Burnley BB11 1TS


Transport: Metro is not the solution for Newport

It seems we all agree that there are serious capacity and resilience issues on the M4 around Newport (Letters, 5 June). Travellers are experiencing ongoing delays at peak times every day and conditions will only worsen. Clearly we need a sustainable solution.

Metro proposals, while potentially generating wider benefits for the region, would unfortunately not significantly alleviate problems on the M4. Improving the existing A roads and exporting motorway flows onto the A48 would also not provide the motorway with sufficient relief, and furthermore would require significant improvement works at great cost. Such works would also carry their own environmental and social issues.

ICE Wales Cymru believes the proposed motorway improvement could provide a long term solution that could deliver economic growth and benefits felt across much of Wales. The Welsh Government is due to publish the outcome of its recent consultation this summer, and we look forward to seeing the findings. The challenge for us civil engineers is to deliver the sustainable, holistic transport network that Wales requires. ICE Wales Cymru firmly supports this and we will do our very best to help to ensure this is delivered.

  • Keith Jones (F), director, ICE Wales Cymru,


  • NCE welcomes letters from readers. We attempt to print as many as possible, which means letters longer than 200 words are likely to be condensed. Send your views and opinions to: The Editor, NCE, Telephone House, 69-77 Paul Street, London, EC2A 4NQ; email:

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