The controversial plans for the UK's high-speed rail are gaining momentum under the engineering stewardship of Professor Andrew McNaughton
London to Manchester in 68 minutes. That's all without leaving the ground. When it begins operation in 2026, the government's ambitious high-speed rail plans (HS2) will bring the UK rail network into the 21st century and rival high-speed networks in Japan and France.
HS2 will be a Y-shaped rail network providing direct, high-capacity, high-speed links between London, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester. There will also be direct links to Heathrow Airport and to the Continent via the High Speed 1 (HS1) line.
The network will be built in two phases to ensure that the benefits of high-speed rail are realised as early as possible. The line from London to the West Midlands and a connection to High Speed 1 are expected to open in 2026 (HS2 Phase 1), followed in 2032-33 by the onward legs to Manchester and Leeds and connection to Heathrow (HS2 Phase 2).
At today's prices phase 1 of HS2 will cost around £16.3bn to construct. The full network will cost £32.7bn. The cost is to be spread over two decades and, on this basis, will involve an average annual spend of less than £2bn.
HS2 Ltd, wholly owned by the Department for Transport (DfT), is responsible for developing and promoting the first phase for which it is undertaking the engineering, design and environmental work.
Parliament will need to give permission to build and operate HS2 through a hybrid bill. HS2 Ltd is responsible for enabling the DfT to process a hybrid bill with Parliament for the first phase of HS2 by the end of this year.
Since 2009 Professor Andrew McNaughton has been chief engineer and technical director of HS2, developing the principles, network and specific route design.
Q Where do you begin planning the engineering on such a large scale project as this?
A In my mind I have a very simple hierarchy, which is system engineering. At the top of it was what the government gave as its basic requirements in terms of why we are doing this thing. Those requirements were about providing new capacity between major cities on a North-South axis.
That led to thinking what the operational system needed to be. From there we went to what does that say about our engineering system? One of our guardian principles was that we are not inventing high-speed rail. The rest of the world has invented it and uses it in different ways.
The one that is probably closest to us in operational concept is the Japanese. That is about big trains running very frequently between the major cities, where the major cities are lined up in a row. That is very different than France, where you have got Paris in the middle and a radial network.
Q On the Japanese network the technology is almost secondary to the management system. How does that translate to HS2?
A People think of high-speed rail purely as a technical system, but that is only half of it. The other half is a people system. The people are the users, but they are also the staff that operate and maintain it.
Often in the UK we run a railway as a not very reliable engineering system, but you get heroics from the guys who maintain it. What we modelled was the reliability of our intensively used railway and worked out that we needed 'Japanese punctuality'. You can't have a train sitting in the middle of the track once a day, once a week or even once a month. It has always got to get to the other end.
That's a bit like aeroplanes. Aeroplanes don't sit down in the middle of the Atlantic. So engineering of an aeroplane has got a redundancy in it.
We needed to specify our train system that it will always get to the other end. That's a different way of thinking, because you are thinking with a blank sheet of paper.
Q When low-cost is such a significant driver doesn't building extra redundancy increase the overall cost?
A It can do, but it is a trade-off. One of the ways that the Japanese build in redundancy is by designing a heavy track infrastructure. Because it is not very highly stressed it does not break and therefore is reliable. They added a few per cent on the initial construction cost, but it buys a whole lot of reliability.
Take a control system, for example. We need two systems to detect trains, so if one system has a fault, the other is still capable of operating the network at full capacity. Only if both systems fail are we into degraded working. In a £34bn project, that's probably another £200-300m, but it will pay for itself many times over.
Q How did you select the speed that you are going to run your network at?
A The benefit side of the equation showed that the more you reduced journey time, the more people would use the railway. The additional cost of reducing journey time was always much less than the additional benefit. That was really important because we didn't start off with a magic figure of a maximum speed. We started at what the technology is capable of today. If we go slower we don't use quite as much energy, so our operational cost is slightly less, but we are a lot less attractive to customers so we have a lot less revenue.
At the same time as this, Network Rail were doing a parallel study. They also concluded that the benefit of reduced journey time, within the range that we were dealing with, was always greater than the cost of the reduced journey time.
Q So there was no fixed journey times between London and Birmingham or Manchester to achieve?
A It was reducing it as much as we could within a balance. In built up areas you have got to manage noise, which means you can't go so fast. In other places topography may get in the way. So on our trunk route, our business case requires that we run up to 225mph. I have always had a specification that says 'I want you to futureproof this' so we will design it for 250mph.
We learnt from our French colleagues who designed the TGV Network for 186mph because they could never imagine going faster than that. Now people are producing trains that go 225mph and they are stuck.
Q That goes against the out-of-the-box scenario as it is faster than the Japanese model you are basing it on?
A I was in Japan two weeks ago, where they have been running through a test programme with a current top speed of 186mph (300km/h). By next year they will have enough trains to lift the speed to 200mph (320km/h). They have demonstrated that they could run at 225mph (360km/h): the same as us. However, they would have to back engineer new noise protection because they never envisaged going so fast. Again, we can set out from day one and design the railway with noise mitigation for 225mph.
Q What journey times are you stating for London to Manchester?
A The Secretary of State announced that the fastest journey time of London Euston to Manchester would be 1hr 8mins. That is a journey of around 180-190 miles.
Q Even allowing for door-to-door travel at either end, that is going to beat the three- or four-hour drive by a long way...
A From the centre of London to the centre of Manchester is obviously very quick, but I always consider door-to-door. If you were in a different part of London it might take 30 minutes to get to Euston, and at the other end a 15-minute journey. Door-to-door is still under two hours. That makes it worth going to Manchester on a day trip.
A lot of the attention has been about London to Manchester, but a much more interesting statistic for me is Birmingham to Manchester. On the road at 6am you could probably do it in about one and a half hours, but a different time of day it could be three hours. We will do that in 41 minutes. I would like to get it to 40 minutes, but 41 minutes from Birmingham to Manchester means that I will pop over to meet you for coffee or a 30-minute interview.
Q In many projects there is a desire to use the latest technology, but when it comes to delivering the project a more pragmatic approach is often taken. How does that look with HS2?
A The guardian principle is that I want the best three-year-old railway technology that I can buy in 2026. I don't actually want to have invented anything. I will take proven innovation. This is quite a difficult balance. We are talking about something that is going to come into use in a decade's time. We don't want to introduce something based on 2012 technology, but you do want something that you can ground in 2012 technology.
What I have said with HS2 is, we could operate it in 2026 with today's technology, but actually technology will advance.
If there is no innovation in the next dozen years, we could operate this railway by integrating a range of engineering systems to make it work. But I bet that in 2026 a whole load of it will be better and we will take what is in the shop window at the time.
Q What technology do you expect to have developed?
A The radio base for our control system is GSMR, which is effectively 2G radio. Nobody would expect us to be operating on that radio system in a dozen years. But I have taken the characteristics of that system and put it into our model in the knowledge that a better system will be available by the time we need it.
Q Do you see yourself as competing with cars and airlines?
A On most of the routes we are competing against the convenience and pleasantness of the car.
A very similar example to London to Manchester would be Paris to Brussels. When that high speed opened and the time reduced from a 2.5hr journey to 1.5hr, about 7 per cent of people flew and that pretty much got wiped out. I don't think you can catch a plane from Paris to Brussels anymore.
Something like half of the people between Paris and Brussels drove and the high-speed railway hoovered up a considerable percentage of these.
Q Does the desire to entice car users onto the railway underpin how you deliver the passenger experience?
A You think about things such as proper broadband. Or about how you move people through a station. High-speed rail is not about a trolley dash down the platform just before the train goes.
It will be a very different experience to today's railway. The passenger is guided to a place on the platform just before the train comes in. The ticket says coach C door 2, and they will stand right by coach C door 2, just like in Japan. They will get on the train quickly and their seat is just there.
Then you say, what do you do with tickets? And we say, why on earth have you got a ticket when you have a smartphone?
Another thing that we learn from Japan is ticket barrier control. Today you come to a barrier and you have to put your ticket in and the gate opens. Our vision for HS2 is, as in Japan, the barriers are open. Just as London Underground are moving on to the next generation from Oyster, the proximity reading device, so the gate detects that you have got a valid ticket on your smartphone and only shuts if it doesn't detect a ticket.
Q There is obviously some wait and see with the market, but when will you start locking in technologies?
A I don't start locking in technologies until I start to procure them. The first ones are the fundamental train and track technologies because the longest design time is the trains. Trains are effectively systems on wheels.
I describe trains as software with a metal shell. Everybody thinks it is about the metal, but it is not; it is about the software. So the trains get a fairly early lease lock down in terms of our specification so we can tender and people can start to design them.
The rest of it we will leave as late as we can because it is a fast evolving world. Civil engineering frankly doesn't change from one decade to the next. So there is less innovation there. There is probably quite a lot of innovation in how things are built, but not in what the things are themselves.
Q Part of the technology development process involves working with UK universities. How is this structured?
A We have a relationship, some of which is fairly informal, with three or four universities now. It is not because we do not know how to do something, but because we want to do things more efficiently.
We have a relationship with Southampton University about track ballasts and with Heriot-Watt about what lies below the track ballasts – the foundations, because we would like a more efficient foundation for less cost.
We have less of a relationship around the electronic world, partly because the industry itself is driving so fast. We look to industry and industry looks to academia. We have used Imperial College London to develop our energy models and we tend to look to places like Nottingham, which have got such a tie in with Rolls Royce and car manufacturers, about materials designs.
Q When do you expect the first track to start being laid?
A We have got a month by month plan through to the first phase opening in December 2026. We have to deposit a hybrid bill at the end of this year. In place now is a paving bill that gives the Secretary of State the right to spend more money on design, but the hybrid bill is the detailed planning permission for the first phase, which is due to open in December 2026.
If that goes through parliament in reasonable order, then you get the Act of Parliament. To cut a long story short we expect to be digging, so to speak, in 2017.