A dedicated training college will be launched by 2017 to train top engineers to work on the £50bn HS2 high-speed rail project, the UK government has revealed.
Announced by Skills and Enterprise Minister Matthew Hancock, the college will be the first new incorporated Further Education College in the UK in more than 20 years and will deliver specialised training and qualifications focused on rail engineering, environmental skills and construction, as well as necessary technical training.
Minister Hancock made the announcement while visiting the HS2 cross-over station site at Old Oak Common in north-west London, accompanied by former Network Rail chief executive Sir David Higgins who was making his first public appearance since taking over as chair of HS2 Ltd, the body responsible for HS2 development and construction.
"This country produces some of the best engineers to be found anywhere in the world. The problem is that there aren't enough of them, and there isn't a long enough guaranteed work-stream to keep them here. So they tend to go overseas,” said Sir David.
"HS2 provides us with a unique chance to address both issues. The sheer length of the project means we can offer people a rewarding career in engineering staying in this country, whilst the multiplicity of skills required means we will be equipping a new generation with experience at the cutting edge of technology,” he said, adding that apart from the perceived economic benefits, the controversial project also offers the opportunity to boost the British national skill base.
The plan to launch the college has been revealed after another prominent politician, Foreign Office Minister David Lidington, expressed concern about the project, whose first phase, connecting London to Birmingham should be completed by 2026.
An MP representing one of the constituencies to be affected by the construction, Lidington complained last week about more than 800 pages of the environmental impact assessment being missing from information sent out by HS2 for consultation, thus providing misleading information to the public.
Lidington also criticised HS2 Ltd for sending out letters to 140 householders telling them that access to their home for HS2 work would be needed for 203 weeks when the necessity was only for "two to three weeks" and complained about a ‘misleading letter’ that had been sent to 15,000 householders about the effects of the HS2 work.
HS2 Ltd has responded to these complaints, explaining the true nature of the work to the affected residents and including the missing pages to the environmental statement.
Despite the ongoing disputes, the project's proponents remain adamant about economic benefits it will bring about.
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said that when HS2 is completed it would "underpin the delivery of 400,000 jobs".
It is expected that HS2 will create up to 2,000 apprentices during the lifetime of construction.
Commenting on the HS2-college announcement, Business Secretary Vince Cable said: "HS2 is the biggest infrastructure project that this Government is delivering. So it is right that a large-scale investment in bricks and mortar should also come with investment in the elite skills which will help build it. "
Opposition leaders, however, said the number of apprenticeships the HS2 would create should be higher.
"While any new training opportunities are welcome, particularly when almost a million young people are out of work, it is a shame that this announcement - of 2,000 apprenticeships over the lifetime of the project- doesn't match our ambition of 33,000 new places,” said Liam Byrne, shadow minister for universities, science and skills.
The cost of the controversial railway project is currently estimated to reach £42.6bn, with a further £7.5bn for the high-speed trains. However, keeping the cost under control is one of the foremost challenges HS2 Ltd’s chairman Sir David Higgins will face.
Speaking to the BBC Radio 4 Today, Sir David said he believed the project had cross-party support and that further engagement with the Commons and the Lord in the upcoming months is crucial to explain the work.