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Viewpoint: Making high speed work

Professor David Johnson on how engineers must offer leadership which is immune from party politics.

We British are prone to the odd bout of grumbling. It’s usually low level stuff - and often about the weather forecast? These sorts of complaints are pretty harmless.

But it is baffling when one reads in the press of serious complaints about the proposals for a UK-wide high speed rail network.

You would have thought that most people would be rubbing their hands together in anticipation of fast, hassle-free and relatively cheap travel. We could be like the French, who have embraced high speed rail and where inter-urban air travel between TGV served cities is now practically zero.

Train travel avoids travel to airports located some distance from the city centre. It avoids the check-in, waiting, bussing or walking, waiting for baggage and finally getting back to civilisation. The flight may be quick, but the journey isn’t.

“We need to consider how we should interconnect, minimise energy use and reduce costs.”

High speed rail is a transport component. In its own right it is more energy inefficient than conventional rail, but if it can displace air travel on appropriate routes, then net energy usage is less.

Similarly, if high speed rail attracts people from their cars - for which it would need to be appropriately priced and convenient - net energy use reduces again.

Dedicated high speed lines would also release capacity for freight on conventional lines and could thus reduce congestion on roads, again with green benefits. Further, rail need consume no oil, saving what will become an increasingly precious commodity for those modes than cannot connect to a power line.

Transit trains serving airports are in favour, and point to the nature of the transport dilemma: integrated transport. We seek seamless travel and for most journeys the car provides this, but the societal benefits of an integrated transport system are clear.

The engineering challenge is how to deliver the transport system of the future.

Rail forms a diverse component; high speed rail is very different from light rail or transit but each has its own niche.

“The engineering challenge is how to deliver the transport system of the future.”

The boundaries of each “product” must be clear and standards applied to each must be appropriate, with no attempt made to sell one solution where another mode would be preferable.

Engineers can change the “envelope” of transport modes by, for example, changing the economics of light rail by engineering out heavy rail risk. They can develop interchanges that work at locations that are served.

Above all, they need leadership immune from politics - surely a role for the Institution of Civil Engineers?

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of a commitment to high speed rail is that it appears to have transcended political timescales, and it is refreshing to see a secretary of state enthusiastic about any form of transport infrastructure in the longer term.

Our challenge as engineers is to embrace this enthusiasm and build on it by considering how we can improve our national transport network and how we should interconnect, minimise energy use and reduce costs while re-establishing ourselves at the forefront of engineering and technology. It’s not often that we are given such an opportunity.

● Professor David Johnson is part of City University’s collaborative transport hub

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