“Essential to spreading prosperity”: An open letter from the rail industry on the importance of HS2

A field, along the route of HS2. Image: Getty.

Last Friday Friday, a coalition of executives from the rail and construction industries, organised by the Rail Industry Association, sent the following open letter to the government regarding the future of the HS2 rail link.

The Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP

Prime Minister, First Lord of the Treasury and Minister for the Civil Service

10 Downing Street

London

SW1P 4DR 

 

17 January 2020

Re: The importance of HS2 to Britain’s future prosperity

Dear Prime Minister, 

We are writing to you as senior leaders in the British rail and construction sectors to express our deep alarm at mounting recent media reports that put into doubt the future of HS2.  

We want to take this opportunity to reiterate not only the devastating impact any curtailment of HS2 would have on our industry, but the detrimental effect cancellation would have on UK Plc more widely in terms of jobs, manufacturing, investment and export potential. To date, we have very much welcomed the Government’s commitment to increased infrastructure spending and investment. However, by putting a project of such national importance at risk, future infrastructure plans will also be threatened, as will the Government’s desire to level up the UK economy. 

HS2 is essential to joining up the UK and spreading prosperity throughout the country. Latest figures show that the project is already supporting approximately 10,000 jobs, is set to support 15,000 jobs by year end and 30,000 jobs at peak construction and train building activity, as well as 2,000 apprentices. Were HS2 to be cancelled, job losses would be calamitous, as would the missed opportunity to train and upskill the next generation of young people who will deliver the future infrastructure and rolling stock projects that the Government is ambitious to complete.  


As the Government reaches its decision, it also needs to be mindful of the fact that the HS2 project is well underway. Indeed, it has been going for more than 10 years and contracts worth billions have been signed. The cancellation of a Government project so far progressed would be unprecedented in the history of British construction.  Should this happen, the industry will have to include additional consideration for risk when pricing for future contracts, to bear in mind the risk of the Government cancelling future projects in the middle of delivery. To put it as clearly as possible, future infrastructure projects will cost the Government more, should HS2 be cancelled at this stage. 

Finally, we often hear talk of replacing HS2 with other projects elsewhere. To be clear, there is no other ‘shovel ready’ project in the UK of a remotely comparable size. The Government’s commitment to infrastructure projects in the North of England is laudable, but these projects are many years behind HS2 in terms of readiness to begin work and most, like Northern Powerhouse Rail, require HS2 to be delivered to realise their full benefits. A hiatus of this duration in Government investment, at this time, would have a devastating impact on jobs in the sector and risk delaying the infrastructure revolution by a decade.

The project is essential, and irreplaceable, to the Government’s goal of fixing the north-south divide which has beset Britain for generations. We urge you to reach a final conclusion as quickly as possible. We urge you to save the jobs of 10,000 people already employed on the project. We urge you to get HS2 done.

Yours sincerely,

David Hughes, CEO, ABB Ltd     

David Barwell, Chief Executive, UK & Ireland, AECOM

Nick Crossfield, CEO, Alstom UK & Ireland

Mark Cowlard, CEO, Arcadis UK and Ireland          

 

Matthew Behan CEO, Barhale   

Matt Byrne, President, UK, Bombardier Transportation

Vincent Avrillon, Managing Director, Bouygues

Jean-Pierre Bertrand, CEO, Colas Rail Ltd               

Jim Brewin, UK Country Lead, Hitachi Rail

Tim Gray, Managing Director, Hitachi Information Control Systems Europe Ltd

Dyan Crowther, CEO, HS1 

Donald Morrison, Senior Vice President and General Manager for People & Places Solutions, Europe, Middle East & Africa, Jacobs

Paul Goodhand, Managing Director, Knorr-Bremse Rail Systems (UK) Limited

Mike Haigh, Executive Chair, Mott MacDonald Ltd

John Murphy, CEO, J Murphy & Sons Ltd

Kathryn Nichols, CEO, Nichols Group

Wayne Peacock, Managing Director Pandrol UK Ltd

Mike Hughes, Zone President, UK & Ireland, Schneider Electric       

John Whitehurst, Managing Director, Transport, Serco

William Wilson, CEO, Siemens Mobility Ltd

Raj Sinha, Managing Director, SSE Enterprise Rail

Nick Salt, CEO, SYSTRA Limited

Frank McKay, CEO, telent

Shaun Jones, Vice President, Thales GTS

Noel Travers, Managing Director, Unipart Rail and Unipart Manufacturing Group

Steve Cocliff, Managing Director, VolkerRail Group

Mark Naysmith, UK CEO, WSP   

Tim Jones & James Fox, Managing Director & Commercial Director, 3Squared Ltd

Pino De Rosa, Managing Director, Bridgeway Consulting Ltd             

Noel Dolphin, Managing Director, Furrer+Frey    

Malcolm Wilson, Managing Director, IPEX Consulting Limited           

Paul McSharry, Managing Director, Kilborn Consulting Limited

Richard Kelly, Managing Director, Loram Ltd        

Paul Priestman, Chairman and Designer, Priestman Goode Ltd

Rui Costa, Managing Director, SOMAFEL

Paul Costello, Managing Director, Wentworth House Rail Systems Limited     

Munir Patel, Managing Director, XRAIL Group

David Tonkin & Darren Caplan, Chairman & Chief Executive, Railway Industry Association         

Simon Babes, SME Group Chair, Railway Industry Association            

Mike Hulme & Justin Moss, Co-Chairs, Northern Rail Industry Leaders            

Professor Clive Roberts, Head of School of Engineering and Director, Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education, University of Birmingham          

 

 

Cc:          Grant Shapps, Secretary of State for Transport

                Sajid Javid, Chancellor of the Exchequer

                Andrea Leadsom, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

                Rishi Sunak, Chief Secretary to the Treasury

                Douglas Oakervee, Chair, independent review of HS2

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.