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Andrew McNaughton, technical director, HS2

Track record: Contrary to negative perceptions, HS2 will become a vital part of the UK’s infrastructure, Andrew McNaughton tells Stuart Nathan

Of all the major engineering projects in the UK, HS2, the proposed high-speed rail line whose fi rst phase will run between London and Birmingham, probably attracts the most opprobrium. It’s been branded a white elephant with no business case or environmental case; a money sink; or only of benefit to developers.

Yet the project’s technical director, Andrew McNaughton, doesn’t have the air of an embattled man. One of the country’s leading railway engineers with track records in both academia and on the ground, McNaughton believes that HS2 is a vital part of the UK’s future infrastructure. Moreover, he believes that the project has been consistently misrepresented.

For a start, he explained, it isn’t a line, and it isn’t a link between London and Birmingham. ‘HS2 is a network in the making,’ he said. ‘It’s a Y-shaped network made in two stages, and it’s as much about connectivity in the north as it is about capacity in the south.’

Much of the negative portrayal of HS2 has seen it depicted as an expensive way of taking relatively few people fast between London and Birmingham. But McNaughton insists that this isn’t the case at all. Instead, he says, it should be seen as a network with Birmingham at the hub, linking to cities in the north and the south, and enabling the upgrading of services on existing lines. ‘I was recently giving evidence to a House of Lords committee alongside representatives from Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and Nottingham,’ he said, ‘and while they’d all picked up on the improved connectivity HS2 would give them with London, Heathrow and Paris via HS1, they’d also picked up on Birmingham to Manchester in 40 minutes. That journey takes hours at the moment. Nottingham to Leeds takes two hours at the moment; HS2 would do it in 20 minutes. It changes the relationship between those cities; it could unlock growth for the Midlands and the north.’

HS2 is as much about connectivity in the north as it is about capacity in the south

Currently, the parliamentary bill for the construction of the first phase of HS2 is making progress and is expected to receive royal assent by 2015. There will then be around two years of procurement, planning approvals and contracts, with construction starting in 2017.

‘The critical part of the construction is at the south end, with the complete rebuilding and expansion of Euston station and the long tunnels through London; that’s a seven- to eight-year job,’ McNaughton said. ‘Out in the greenfield away from London, most of the route can be built in two years, so we’ve told the local communities that the construction period will be between 2017 and 2026, but we don’t know yet which two years during that period it will be.’


Train link: HS2 could open up more parts of the UK

Phase 1 also includes four stations: two city-centre terminals in London and Birmingham, and two city-outskirts stops, one at Old Oak Common, near Hammersmith, and one near Solihull. In London, Euston will be transformed completely; and Birmingham will see a city-centre development with the HS2 trains coming into a new Curzon Street station, sharing a concourse with the existing Moor Street station that handles commuter lines.

The other two stations are important in different ways. Old Oak Common is key to how the difficult southern section of the line will be built. ‘It’s very much like Stratford on the HS1 line,’ McNaughton explained. ‘We’ll build a big box and use it to launch the tunnelling works, driving to Euston and “around the corner” to link up with the HS1 line, then we’ll fit the box out as a station.’

The Solihull station, meanwhile, will act as the link between HS2 and the rest of the country. ‘The station is positioned to be close to the NEC, the airport, and the M6 and M42 box,’ McNaughton said. ‘Then we’re building a delta junction. If you’re going to Birmingham, you’ll go on the spur into the city centre. But then we reconnect, via the delta junction, with the West Coast Mainline at Lichfield. And that’s really important; it means that we can run trains to Liverpool and Manchester, using Eurostar 2 stock, which is compatible with the new line and the existing line, and not stop in Birmingham at all. You get the time saving to Birmingham, which has been well publicised, but you also get that time saving going on to Manchester and beyond to Glasgow, and that’s before the second phase is built.’

The second phase, the two branches of the Y from the West Midlands to Manchester and to Leeds via the East Midlands, are scheduled to be built up to 2032. This will allow high-speed trains, travelling up to 250mph, to run between all four cities on the network, but will also connect with the existing West Coast and East Coast mainlines. ‘The existing network was never conceived as looking both north and south; that’s why it’s relatively easy to travel from London to most places and vice-versa, but hard to travel between many of the cities,’ McNaughton said. ‘But because we’re developing the potential for a network, we can have that line that faces north and south and allows that interconnection.’


Station to station: Euston is set to be transformed

The large number of destinations means an equally large number of trains; up to 18 per hour. ‘We’re designing this to be the most heavily used line in the world,’ McNaughton said. ‘That’s important for the engineering. We have to take the business requirements - journey times, capacities and so on - and work out an operational concept: how the service is going to run; how you’re going to get people on and off the trains; and how trains are going to come into stations. Only then can you start designing lines and stations and bridges and things. But what the railway will look like to a user is something that has to be built in from the start.’

We have to think about how to get 1,100 people onto a train 400m long and how to handle 18,000 people per hour

Ergonomics is important to McNaughton and he’s starting from the assumption that the trains are going to be full. The design’s starting point was that there would be no premium on the fares to use the service, he said. ‘That would have been counterproductive, and make it a very expensive way to move fresh air around,’ he commented. ‘So we have to think about how to get 1,100 people onto a train 400m long, and at peak time, how to handle 18,000 people per hour. You have to treat them as individuals - some will be familiar with high-speed rail, some won’t; some will be tourists, some will be travellers; they’re different ages, different sizes, moving at different speeds. At Euston, for example, we’ll have escalators from the concourse to the platform every 100m or so, and a couple of hundred people using each one like an airline gate; we should be able to board the whole train, which is bigger than a Eurostar and has more passengers, in two minutes. It takes 15 to load a Eurostar.’

McNaughton is convinced that HS2 is the best way to solve Britain’s rail problems. ‘These cities are growing; the population is growing. Demand for rail will increase,’ he said. ‘The West Coast Mainline will be at capacity by 2025. HS2 provides not only double the capacity for inter-city travel, it frees up the existing lines for commuter growth into the big cities, so we can provide fast trains to all these intermediate places that at the moment have a poor stopping service.’

McNaughton added: ‘If you stand on Milton Keynes platform during morning peak, you’ll see lots of Pendolino trains but they don’t stop; they’re all full of people going to Manchester. In 2025, when HS2 opens, they’re gone. Trains will stop at Milton Keynes every 10 minutes.’


andrew mcnaughton
Technical director, HS2


1973 Joins British Rail. For his first 20 years with the organisation was involved in maintenance, renewal and upgrade work, including the rebuilding of railways through Kent for the first decade of Channel Tunnel operation.
1993 Joins Railtrack. Has served as head of production and director of Great Western
2001 Appointed chief engineer at Railtrack
2009 Appointed chief engineer of High Speed 2 (HS2).

Holds professorships in engineering at Imperial College London; in rail engineering at Nottingham University; and in civil engineering at Southampton University. Also vice-chairman of the EU Transport Advisory Group, chairman of the European Rail Research Advisory Council, and past chairman of the UIC Infrastructure Forum.


What sort of trains will run on HS2?

Trains are rolling off the production line now that will do 225mph, so we’re designing for those, but the track will be able to take trains up to 250mph.

But won’t trains be faster than that by 2026?

Possibly, but there are two factors there. The first is that with the distances we’re talking about, going faster doesn’t do much to journey times, but it pushes up the energy you use; energy increases with the square of the speed. We optimised between speed, energy use and impact - the faster you go, the straighter the track has to be - and we settled on 225mph for our business case, but it’s possible to engineer the line with very little extra impact for 250mph. The other factor is that we decided to build on the most advanced technology that we could stand behind and know it could work. We’ve been criticised by some for being underambitious inusing 2010 technology for a 2025 project; to which I say: ‘yes - but I know it’ll work, out of the box.’

What are the engineering implications of that speed?

One of the biggest is to do with getting the number of trains we need onto the track with safe distances between them. That’s partly to do with the control system and the brakes, but also with the track layout. For intermediate stations, we have a layout something like a motorway junction. A train coming in goes onto a high-speed turn-off that it enters at about 160mph, then it slows down and stops at the platform. Another train can come through the main line at top speed; the stopped train will start accelerating onto the exit turn-off about 15 seconds before the second train comes through, and when it rejoins the main track, it tucks in behind the non-stopping train at a safe distance. The timings are down to seconds.

Is that a challenge for the driver?

We expect, while there will be a driver in the cab, the trains will be automatic, because that’s more responsive. The driver will be there for degraded running in emergencies and for passenger safety - they’re still highly trained operators. With this frequency of trains, it’s more like running a high-speed metro, with signalling problems equivalent to Thameslink or Crossrail.

What’s the most complicated engineering problem?

It’s probably about the track bed. Do we go with a traditional ballasted track, which is very good at dissipating energy and is probably quieter; or do we go with a German-style slab track with concrete bedding the rails, which is better at controlling vibration? We’ll have to use slab in the tunnels, but the interface between the two is difficult; you go from a flexible, plastic-elastic medium to something quite tight.

Readers' comments (20)

  • I do wish you'd use Km/hr so as to give clear International comparisons.
    The above account is extremely uncritical.
    Especially it makes no mention of the highly unsatisfactory bodge which is the Old Oak Common idea - given that, right from the start, a proper HS rail connection to Heathrow should be the answer.
    I am baffled as to how a totally new station linking HS2, Crossrail and Great Western can be inserted in a heavily congested running railway without immense cost and problems.

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  • Since when has a network been a "Y"? For the geographically-challenged, Heathrow is on the way to Bristol, and Birmingham is on the way to North Wales. Neither, unfortunately, is on the way to Scotland. Every civil engineer since Roman times has noticed this. That's why roads, canals, railways, and airways are constructed as . . er . . networks.
    Could Prof McNaughton explain how he "optimised between speed, energy use, and impact"? If going faster doesn't do much for journey times, and energy goes up as the square of the speed, and the straightness of the track goes up with speed, surely the optimum solution is to remain stationary and do your business on the internet.

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  • How loud will these trains be for people living along the line? If you are planning to build the "most heavily used railway line" in the world - then this is a big consideration for those people who will NOT be sitting IN the train. 18 trains an hour ( in each direction!) from 5 am until midnight. Will the line also take freight at night? No one has been that clear with the real plans. Much of the line is not following what you could honestly call
    "existing busy transport corridoors". So what's the plan?

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  • Prof McNaughton did talk about measures to reduce noise impact, such as earth bunding and noise barriers; however, he described this is fairly routine civil engineering, and there was not enough space in the article to discuss this.

    HS2 is to be for passenger trains only; this is part of the logic of the project, as it helps to free up capacity on the existing line for freight.

  • Andrew McNaughton's enthusiasm is commendable. He is a railwayman and he promotes railways, but are railways for railwaymen or are they for the country at large?

    We are in energy and economic crisis times. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution there is almost no travelling problem that engineers have not been able to solve by throwing more energy at it, but the result of that is that we are heading rapidly for a major energy (and environmental) crisis. There is almost no monetary problem that businessmen have not been able solve by conning the public into borrowing more money so now we have a credit crisis. HS2 contains both these two major issues in mega proportions and in promoting it the HS2 protagonists are in effect saying that when you have a crisis the best solution is more of the same! No it isn't. We need engineers with ingenuity not salesmen.

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  • Why would a network centre on Birmingham as a Hub.

    The objecives change by the week. No intermodal shift. Build as new motoreway route North to South in England and put a railway at the side in the same corridor and Birmingham is not the hub you chose. Spur to Birmingham. If this is a network in the making start again and move from the new labour HS2 to a coalition of motorway and rail route and get better value for money.

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  • The rail passenger industry will permanently downsize after the internet evolves to give us all almost free to use High Definition Video Links over optic-fibres. Perhaps in ten years they will be at both ends of nearly all rail-passenger journeys. This will remove the sector of the existing rail-passenger industry for whom seeing someone virtually replaces their need to travel by train.

    The HS2 business case simply ignores the internet as a threat and assumes it will have no effect on passenger behaviour in the next 75 years!!! This was the only way they could get the numbers to add up.

    Count me out as an investor!

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  • c allen - you are ignoring several key points about rail travel. business travel makes up 20% of the rail market , the population is set to imncrease and people are choosing rail over road so you are also ignoring modal shift.

    and chris eaglen birmingham is the second largest city and is also more or less in the middle of england. and as for someone saying birmingham isnt on the way to scotland well it is by the my and the west coast main line ! and presumably a flight from heathrow to edinburgh would not pass over the city by a very large distance !

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  • I, like many of my colleges followed the suggestion of a certain Conservative politician, upon the closure of consecutive organizations I have worked with got on my bike and found work elsewhere. Never earning the bags of cash needed to move house ever southward, the trend pushed in that direction of the compass, the choice I had was either throw myself on the support of the State or travel. I chose to travel.
    I now live slightly over ninety miles from where I work, not far by some standards and as a consequence of the cost of fuel and the time it takes to make the journey I had to find a second very inexpensive local gaff which unlike the tax benefits afforded to our politicians incurs no tax relief.

    Now to the point of this letter, if I wished to travel from my home to work by train and arrive at the appropriate time on Monday morning guess what …….. I would have to leave at 18:00 on Sunday evening. The HS2 project will do nothing to change my circumstances or that of the thousands of other that I share the motorway system with in the early hours of Monday morning or the gridlock we experience on the return journey on Friday.

    Governments, of all colours, have forced me to pay additional green taxes the moneys of which were to be ring fenced so that a better connected and synchronised public transport system could be provided.

    Much as I would dearly like to dump my car and throw away the keys and never visit a petrol filling station again what Doctor Beeching started continues today. Railways no longer get you to where you want to be from where you need to start. Failure of consecutive Governments to spend the huge amount of additional green taxes on the provision of a joined up transport systems compound the problems and fuels the fires of the cynical. In the absence of Government success my old car is the only alternative.

    Now, if Mr. McNaughton turned round and said that it was goods not passengers that would eventually be travelling the length of the currently United Kingdom and that the wagons could cope with carrying heavy good vehicles at a cost that would make running them on the road madness then I’m for it. In this case Mr. McNaughton, build your railway but this not being the case give me a railway that I can use and that’s not the HS2.

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  • I do wonder if the people who add comments to an article in The Engineer actually read the article first or just quote their preconceived prejudice.

    The prime HS2 objective is for extra CAPACITY, not speed. The Engineer is correct, the argument has been hijacked to reflect the benefit of reduced journey times. Speed is a mere spin off. As stated in the article, the existing Main lines will be freed up for extra capacity for BOTH freight and local commuter traffic whilst as much as possible of the express traffic will be removed onto HS2. When passengers travel on the new HS2 line, let the train go fast so we can then set another one after it, reducing the residency time on for each trainload of passengers. Building stations, as a through siding, will greatly increase capacity; this allows the HS2 line to remain in use, unlike the current main line where every station stops existing traffic.

    I agree that the route should encompass Heathrow and we should keep the construction workforce in continuous employment heading North & beyond, not the stop start style of the civil service.

    I realise that Southerners think that Motorways are parking lots and trains should travel at zero speed (I'm a Southerner born in Kent, so I am used to such zero speed comments as made by others.) Remember the [Un]Civil Service & Politicians started the M6 / M74 over 52 years ago and finished the final link in December 2008 near Carlisle. The Romans built the A1 to Edinburgh; meanwhile, politicians have failed to provide a dual carriageway to Scotland on Eastern side of Country. Should The Engineer have a guessing game, for readers, as to when HS2 will reach Glasgow AND Edinburgh; plus a guess at when a second dual carriageway opens to Scotland from London? Do we include guesses beyond the year 2100?

    Thank heavens proper Engineers like Brunel, Brindley, Macadam, etc understood what transport infrastructure means to a national economy. Some in the 21st century want to revert to the Middle Ages. I agree about comment regarding increased energy usage can solve problems, but trains and roads are more energy efficient than planes flying internal flights from remote airports where you queue for hours… However the primary source of increased energy usage in transport is commuting, 50 years ago we lived within 5 miles of our workplace, I was told it is now nearer 50 miles on average.

    Please note, I am not Anonymous.

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  • Seems like the antis have landed in numbers again? HS2 is only the beginning but we have to start somewhere. It's easy to argue that the new line doesn't directly serve YOUR needs but it will surely benefit a significant percentage of the country - by my reckoning HS2 (phases 1&2) will offer approx. 17 million people direct access to High Speed Rail services - not the entire UK of course but a sizeable chunk?

    Once HS2 phase 1 is actually underway, circa late 2016, I've no doubt that demands from other parts of the UK to join the High Speed club will become increasingly strident - but we have to start somewhere. Building a brand new rail line won't come cheap and we can't (from a pure finance perspective) eat the elephant all at once?

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