Yesterday’s announcement of the approval of HS2 made sure that an engineering-related topic dominated the news programmes. The news broadcasts, newspaper coverage and television reports sought comment from political observers, environmental campaigners and economists but, oddly, there didn’t seem to be much comment from the people who will actually make the proposals into reality. You know. Engineers.
That’s quite an anomaly, if you think about it. The history of the railways — a very British history — is punctuated by the engineers who made it possible. Trevithick, Watt, Stevenson and, of course, Brunel: the visionary engineers who drove the permanent way and its mighty engines across the country. These days? It seems that the media are more interested in bemoaning the lack of such mighty men of technological wisdom and charisma than actually trying to find someone to comment on it.
It might actually do them some good. The HS2 line has been replanned with more tunnels, including a three-mile one under London and several through the green and pleasant lands of the Chilterns. They’ve pushed the price of the project up, but they’ve mollified some of the concerns of the MPs for those constituencies and the Mayor of London. The cynics among you will notice which party all these politicians belong to.
More to the point, they’ve made the engineering of the line more difficult. More than half the length of the line will pass through tunnels or cuttings. How robust are the costings for these? Are they likely to come in on budget? And who carries the can if they don’t?
Around The Engineer, we remain unconvinced about the benefits of the first stage of HS2. Without that fast link into the North and to Scotland, it’s hard to see where the suggested economic benefits are going to come from. The government costs the entire new high-speed network at £36billion and says it will bring in £47billion over 60 years, but these figures are so mind-bogglingly huge that they’re difficult to grasp and near-impossible to analyse.
But the most important thing to keep in mind is that the project is, in the final analysis, an engineering task. Do we have the skills in place to start the project? Do we have the education and training pipleine in place to make sure we have all the different engineering disciplines to keep the project running through its lifetime and solve the problems which will inevitably arise along the route? Is there someone with the drive and discipline to keep the project going and prevent it becoming an albatross hanging around the neck of subsequent transport ministers?
We haven’t got a Brunel anymore. But it’s engineers who are going to drive this project, and the fact that their voices aren’t being heard — or even sought — doesn’t bode well for the UK’s biggest rail project for more than a century.