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Letters: The thinking behind HS2 is seriously flawed

High Speed 2

HS2: Reservations expressed

Hurrah! At last a senior industry professional speaks out against the HS2 design specification (News 22 May). Like many engineers who are in favour of a new spine to our national rail network, I have serious reservations when I look at the alignment locally resulting from a blanket application of a single design speed. This is not France. Has anyone from HS2 actually walked the proposed route?
In South Yorkshire the alignment results in a new station half an hour from the existing city centre, perched 30m up in the air, serving a shopping centre. At least two communities will be destroyed. A revised line speed locally using disused lines would result in no disruption, improved connectivity directly to the existing network at Sheffield station, higher economic benefits, and all at a significantly lower cost. A reduced line speed would add only a few minutes between Sheffield and Leeds. As the current “express” service takes an hour to travel the 59km, any improvement will be judged as high speed.
Like Rob Holden, I find the route we’ve ended up with seriously flawed, but there is a bigger question. What kind of project governance is in place that led to such decision making?
l Adrian Millward (M),
What a relief to read Rob Holden, a heavyweight coming from HS1, pointing out that the concept of the new main line having to be high speed is flawed. That presumption, driven partly by the misconception that we need a “Grand Projet” to compete with France and Japan, is ruining the potential for really effective improved capacity and connectivity for the country as a whole. Readers may recall I made this point as a lone voice last year, to a deafening silence. Can we not, as a profession, steer the development of the scheme away from promises to put ever more of the line into tunnel, increasing the costs and progressively reducing the attractiveness of the journey, towards more flexibility and connections?

  • Mark Nevard (M Retd), The Bath House, 71 Flask Walk, Hampstead.

Book your seat on the train of common sense

At last a breath of rail common sense. High Speed 2 might suit France, Germany or Spain but not the UK. Intercity time savings are not the same as on the Continent with their longer distances between cities.
New construction yes, because it produces more capacity per pound spent than expenditure on existing rail, and while the new roads programmes are very necessary their limited capacity increase means rail must take a bigger share of travel need.

Connectivity and integration yes. That there are no intermediate stops between Birmingham and London, bypassing Coventry and Aylesbury is a nonsense. More important is economic growth.

A massive unfulfilled housing demand has to be met across regions and with it will go economic growth. Rail stories of the past, growth at intersections on the motorway network tell us that. And, of course, through running to the Continent with a rolling stock capable of acceptable UK intercity speeds with lower environmental costs but also capable of operating on the European network isn’t a big ask.

  • Paul Smith (M),

Timetable to lose UK tens of billions

The headline to Jim Steer’s letter reads “A cut in HS2’s speed would cut profitability”. That misleads since, instead of a profit, the scheme will make a loss in the tens of billions.

Table 18 of the October 2013 Economic Case for HS2 document published by HS2 Ltd shows the net costs to government of building the full network (after accruing fares out to the remote year of 2096) as £31.5bn, at the 2012 base. Rolling that up at the Treasury discount rate of 3.5% to the opening year of 2036 provides £72bn, representing the actuarial loss, at 2012 prices, faced by those then standing.

Dividing the £72bn by the 100,000 jobs said to be generated by the scheme provides a subsidy of £720,000 per job, doubtless destroying a far greater number in that part of the economy which makes a profit. Despite that, the proposers claim (vast) transformational effects for the better.

HS2 may very well be transformational, but in precisely the reverse direction to that portrayed by its proposers.

  • Paul Withrington (M), Transport Watch, 12 Redland Drive, Northampton NN2 8QE

HS2 cursed by diminishing returns

The readers’ poll on High Speed 2 (HS2) could be dismissed as too small to be representative but does reflect the opinion of the general public (News last week). In terms of opportunity costs, HS2 could build more than 200 general hospitals. And when most people drive most places, with under 3% of all UK trips by rail, of which 70% are in or to/from London, HS2 is an irrelevance to much of the public. In his letter in the same issue Jim Steer has tried to show a financial aspect by reference to HS1, which cost £6.1bn to build.

However, £2.1bn was the price paid by the Ontario Teachers fund to buy HS1, representing a loss of £4bn. To make a 33% return, HS1 would have to have been sold for over £8bn. No-one has yet answered the National Audit Office criticisms of HS2, nor why it should cost eight times as much as a French high speed line. A case can be made for high speed railways but at about £25M/km, not £170M.

  • Professor LJS Lesley, 30 Moss Lane, Liverpool L9 8AJ

Delays on the line reek of incompetence

Another major flaw of HS2 is taking 11 years to build phase one, compared with the five to six years it is taking the French to build 300km of high speed line from Tours to Bordeaux (NCE 15 May). Or, for that matter, the Great Northern Railway building 350km of double track route, by hand, including a dozen tunnels, between 1846 and 1852.

I asked about this at a public consultation and was told Euston station must be completely rebuilt before any HS2 trains could run. Yet Network Rail is rebuilding and expanding Reading station while operations continue. Perhaps it should be put in charge of the project.

This makes the country and particularly the planners of this project appear incompetent.

  • David Smith , 25 Grange Rd, Shrewsbury SY3 9DG

Flooding bigger threat than nuclear

Darren McClure has provided a refreshing piece of sanity that is bizarrely almost never present in today’s discourse (Letters, 15 May).

It is the most dangerous scandal of the age that nuclear power has been judged and condemned by those who refuse to face facts - and who are so frightened of the Bogie Man under the bed that they fail to react to the floodwater coming up the stairs.

Nuclear power plants have so far failed to kill more than a handful of people in their entire history - no matter how badly designed and operated some of the older plants were.
Even when a tsunami hit Fukushima it still refused to kill people anywhere nearly as effectively as countless others of life’s hazards. Chernobyl killed about 50 heroic people yet the Greens told us it would kill 50,000. Three Mile Island killed three men and that condemned an industry.

Long term damage from those incidents has been, and will be, trivial compared with the damage from CO2 emissions.

The long-term health issues from nuclear plants are theoretical extrapolations of the effects of low levels of radiation on vast numbers of people.

On that basis we should evacuate radioactive Cornwall even though there is no evidence of any harm. Indeed, some years ago NCE reported negative correlation between radon gas sites in the UK and lung cancers.

The worst conceivable nuclear power plant accident would not extinguish a single species of animal. It might conceivably seriously dent property values nearby. But it would not displace billions of people as rising sea levels (we are told) will do. We can afford low property values. We cannot afford the real and present hazard of a biblical flood.

  • David Cooper (F),


Easy way to justify nuclear power

The simplest way to demonstrate that we need nuclear power stations would be to turn them all off for a day. The country would come to a standstill.

  • Robert Freer,

Spanish lessons in new rail lines

I am a Spanish civil engineer specialising in construction, maintenance and track supervision and have worked in Spain as project manager on several high speed rail projects. I am writing with regards to the article “Need for Speed” (NCE 15 May).

I found your article most interesting. I would like to make some points regarding the track construction method used in the project mentioned.

The article states that the French contractor has developed a new system to lay down the track without using an auxiliary track, by pulling the rails out from the rail supply train with a special machine.

This system was previously developed in Spain and it has been used as the preferred track construction method for high speed rail lines for the past five years.

This method was first implemented in 2009 during the construction of the track on one section of the Madrid-Valencia high speed line for the Spanish contractor TECSA, and after its success, it was adopted by the Rail

Spanish Administrator (ADIF) as the preferred track construction method for this line, and for all other high speed rail projects under construction.

The method reduces the cost of track construction projects by increasing performance of an operation, which until this date, was slow, and eliminating the cost of supplying auxiliary track, as well as the cost of moving it as construction advances.

As a result the Spanish companies involved in the construction of high speed rail developed small variances from the original method, improving daily the quality of the process and automating it.

The method has been successfully implemented by the Spanish contractors from 2009 to date, applying different variations from the original method.

However, the principle is similar in all of them - the use of a “pusher wagon” to extract the first section of the rails, the use of a special machine (an adapted bulldozer, a modified digger or a machine designed for the sole purpose of gripping the rails with two lateral arms and pull them out of the rail supply train), to place them smoothly within the sleepers, previously placed on site.

The special wagon or adapted machine moves along the definitive position of the track, while the train storing the rails remains stationary.

The system permits 4.05km of track to be laid within two days. A maximum rail length of 1.08km (four connected sections of 270m long welded rails) have been pushed out of the train by this method.

  • Luis Gonzalez,

Making the case for Boston flood barrier

The Thames Barrier was built as a result of lessons learned from the 1953 Flood Disaster on the East Coast. However, I am curious why the Boston Barrier was also not a result of lessons learned from this event and 60 years on is still not built. As a result of the recent flooding in the centre of Boston, including the 14th century Boston Stump (St Botolph’s Church tower), there is now more of a political sense of urgency to get the barrier built.

While there have been undoubted improvements in flood protection since 1953, the town and many square kilometres of the surrounding area has remained at high risk of flooding. Therefore, the lack of a barrier has seriously affected investment and prosperity in this region over many decades.

The proposed location of the barrier is very close to the centre of Boston instead of several kilometres downstream nearer to the mouth of the Wash. This allows a tidal bore to travel up the River Witham. It seems to be the equivalent of locating the Thames Barrier at the Houses of Parliament. The Boston Barrier at the proposed location will regulate water levels in local rivers and drains to allow more leisure traffic. This is of course an admirable objective. However, the primary consideration must surely be flood protection. I believe Boston and the UK deserves both.

  • Martin Bellamy (M), Boston, Lincolnshire

A ‘prejudice’ to promote

I refer to the interesting recent correspondence in NCE during regarding gender and ethnic representation in engineering.

We should ensure that there are equal opportunities for all to enter the profession, but any move towards imposing, or even suggesting, quotas would be dangerous - entry should be on merit only.

While the stereotyping does still exist (dolls as toys for girls; cranes, trucks, etcetera, for boys) - I believe that this is diminishing.

The local authority for which I work is very proactive in engaging with the local schools on our civil engineering projects.

  • Paul Cobley (M),

Why the fear factor makes the difference in civil engineering

I am not one of those that usually sends letters to magazines (even less so in English), but the special report on flooding was quite special for me (News last week). I worked some years in this field in Spain and my conclusion is that it is just fear that brings the people to do the correct things.

Unfortunately, I think that this fear only applies to massive reconstruction costs and, even more, to human losses caused by natural disasters. We have some examples in the world about this: the Netherlands, as the report explains, is one of those.

Another example is Chile, a country with renowned expertise in structural design against earthquakes (it is quite amazing to be on a fourth floor seeing how everything is moving around during a quake).

In the case of Chile the disaster was the 1960 Valdivia earthquake. In the case of Netherlands, it was the 1953 flood, which also affected the UK.

Last June in the Pyrenees in Spain there were important floods with important evacuations and economic losses. No one can deny that the episode was caused by some of the problems described in your report, but nobody wants to change anything. Instead of this, everything has been reconstructed as it was before the floods: only when the floods take human lives we will see the government act in the correct way.

I think that the problem of this matter is, as the report pinpoints, that “…everyone has an opinion”. I hope that one day all of these people that have an opinion will show us how to solve gradually varied flow equations without all the current limitations.

  • Isaac Quintas,

Readers' comments (1)

  • HS2 - why are we trying to get it to do everything? The benefit of the high speed link is surely in the fact that it will take considerably less time to get from A to B, obviously; however when considering the route it appears to have been forced to join the dots between population centres, which again may seem obvious since that's what the system is trying to move. However the train is good at moving large volumes of people fast over long distance, it isn't particulary good crawling through suburbs where it has to join into the existing network to reach each of these popluation centres, not to mention the aggravation that these new services will cause to the existing non-high speed lines that can't help but be affected by additional services being shoe-horned into congested track space.
    If we wish to persist with this folly, why is Highspeed 2 not used for what it is good at, namely getting from A to B quickly where A and B are regional hubs and not the city centres themselves. Surely instead of trying to hack their way into London Euston or Manchester Picadilly, with the last 30-minutes of each journey in either direction being on local rail network fitted in between existing services, the train would be better off connecting to an outlying location say Warrington for Manchester/ Liverpool and North West London for Heathrow / London / South West / Wales even. From these regional hubs the shuttle trains could then link to the main population centres / destinations, being more suited to integration with the local network and maybe in the case of Manchester linking into the East West link with Leeds.

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