Politicians and engineers must seize the chance to unlock the wider potential of major infrastructure schemes, especially high speed rail, says architect and masterplanner Sir Terry Farrell. He talks to Alexandra Wynne.
Sir Terry Farrell is an architect and an engineering sympathiser.
He is also no stranger to high speed rail schemes worldwide, nor is he unfamiliar with transport planning closer to home. Within his vast repertoire are two high speed rail stations in China − Beijing South station and New Guangzhou station still under construction. Back in the 1990s he also worked on the Embankment Place development above the rail lines leading into London’s Charing Cross station.
These projects have moved Farrell to produce his own vision for high speed rail in the UK in the hope of influencing those planning the High Speed 2 (HS2) route to the north and Scotland.
“The big issue for the Brits is will − political will and local will. Everybody has to consult everybody else a dozen times.”
Sir Terry Farrell
For Farrell, the key point is that a new network has the potential to spiral into new developments and regeneration plans for many major UK cities, rather than simply providing them with great rail connections.
But most importantly, he is keen to see the UK’s leaders take charge of planning ahead and understanding how high speed rail fits with the infrastructure already in place.
Not that he is saying it will be easy − Farrell admits that working in China has provided more of a blank canvas than would ever be encountered in the UK.
“High speed rail does need a lot more thinking here than in Asia. And we do have to try to make sense of what [infrastructure] we’ve got in the UK,” he says.
Farrell’s high speed vision
- High speed rail dictates, and is a key driver in, future airport strategy.
- High speed rail is a key driver of regional development. Individual cities on high speed routes will benefit from unprecedented levels of investment energy with significant increases in land and real estate values
- A new generation of clean stations could become new city centres
- Rail is a truly sustainable mode of transport. It must become an essential component of the low energy, low carbon emissions strategy.
- An S shaped route from London to Scotland would allow high speed rail to take in Newcastle.
But for him the real obstacle lies within the UK’s penchant for democracy and consultation.
“So much of our infrastructure isn’t fully thought through,” he says. “Ideas are thrown out and an enormous amount of time is spent on consultation,” he says. “The big issue for the Brits is will − political will and local will. Everybody has to consult everybody else a dozen times.”
It is, he adds, a problem little encountered in more successful high speed promoters France and China which take a harder line on pushing projects through if they are deemed to be for the good of the people.
It is clear that Farrell has in mind a number of schemes that have fallen foul of bad planning and missed opportunities. On the forefather to HS2 − the High Speed 1 link to the Channel Tunnel − Farrell says there are two examples where an engineering solution has been delivered but not a regenerative one.
Although a wider development is planned at Ebbsfleet International station near Gravesend, he says there was “nothing there” to breathe new life into before the line was built. He describes Ashford for instance − home to the other Kent HS1 station − as just a “relatively modest town”.
“There’s a case for saying infrastructure for change is getting ahead of the developments around them,” he says.
“One has to plan for the socio-economic planning of these places − it’s not just a train set. Every major station will have a major city-making impact.”
Sir Terry Farrell
“It’s one thing to see high speed rail as a piece of hardware but it is about the socio-economic regeneration of the cities it serves,” he says. “One has to plan for the socio-economic planning of these places − it’s not just a train set. Every major station will have a major city-making impact.”
And which are the cities that could benefit from HS2? Farrell does have high hopes that a London to Scotland route will include as many of the major UK cities as is feasible.
“I think the S-shaped route is the best option,” he says, referring to a network that snakes from London, through Birmingham connecting to the North West and then the North East before heading up to Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Farrell is mindful of the difficulties of creating links across the north of England. He says that he can envisage a route following the West Coast Main Line with spurs to the North East as it would be a “dreadful shame” to miss out Newcastle.
Thames Estuary Challenge
Sir Terry Farrell last month joined the Thames Estuary steering group set up by London mayor Boris Johnson. The group is charged with investigating the possibility of making Johnson’s idea for an island airport a reality.
But Farrell will be unafraid to speak out against the project if need be. He came up with his own plan for the region a few years ago, working up an idea for a 9km flood barrage across the mouth of the estuary from Southend in Essex to Sheerness in Kent including a cable stayed road and rail bridge connecting to the mainland (NCE 5 October 2006).
“There is no evidence that [an island airport] is the likely solution,” he says. “It needs a lot of clever assessment of the relationship of high speed rail to airports. I’ve argued with Johnson that you can put in a new airport but it’s about thinking about linking it to what we’ve already got.”
For Farrell, investment in the early concept is vital to the scheme. “Where is the investment in thinking in this country? There’s a huge investment in consultation, but not so much in developing ideas,” says Farrell.
“To do this study needs a minimum of £2M just to ask the questions. It would take another £20M to start coming up with the answers.”
But whichever stations win a prized spot on the route, Farrell is adamant that they must be planned to optimise development and regeneration potential.
For instance, choosing to stop at non-central stations as is the current proposal at Birmingham would pander to the easiest engineering option. But he warns: “You have to put the stations where the people want them.” Talking of where people want them to be, there is no better place to start asking that question than at the start of the route − London.
For Farrell, Euston station is a clear frontrunner as the capital’s high speed rail hub (News last week). This contrasts sharply with an idea being bandied around by the government’s HS2 company to position a station between King’s Cross and the HS1 station at St Pancras − an idea that Farrell says is a purely engineering solution.
However, he is adamant about the need to link HS2 with HS1 − stating that such a connection has “incredible importance” in linking the geographically isolated UK with the Continent.
He says Euston is an untapped resource. “My hunch is that Euston is a better place [than King’s Cross/St Pancras]. It has the biggest area of land,” he says. “You have to think ‘what does a railway station attract to it as part of its DNA?’ It releases value but if you haven’t got the land around it to release the value then that’s not the right place.”
It is a tried and tested theory for Farrell, and one the UK traditionally appears disinclined to test out. This country’s airports and major stations tend to try and accommodate services for passengers within a contained shell − think Heathrow Terminal 5 or even St Pancras station − without breaking the building’s boundaries.
The Farrell-designed Beijing South station in China, on the other hand, provides the infrastructure as well as the masterplan for a high speed hub. It acts as a gateway to the city.
“You have to think ‘what does a railway station attract to it as part of its DNA?’ If you haven’t got the land around it to release the value then that’s not the right place.”
Sir Terry Farrell
Opened in time for the Beijing Olympics, it offers an infrastructure solution while acting as a gateway to the city. By 2030 it will be able to accommodate 105M passengers (dwarfing the boast by Terminal 5 that it handled 20M in its first year).
Farrell reminds us that it is mostly British people who are creating these successful rail hubs around the world and is optimistic that the newly-formed Infrastructure Planning Commission can really help with strategic planning in the future.
His parting words may hint at a cautionary tale but he hopes it will act as a call to arms to get a UK high speed network right from the start: “If you don’t take the moment there is a sheer waste of effort from indecision.”