HS2’s Design Vision

Good design is not a simple concept. On the railway, it’s about more than station architecture. Good design takes into account the rolling stock, the operations and all the systems that run on the network.

Thinking about the system as a whole is especially important at the beginnings of a new railway such as HS2. Being bold from day one about the design of the new line and everything connected to it, will ultimately add up to a better result.

Kate Hall, HS2 Ltd’s Built Environment Director, is a staunch advocate of this ideal. Despite her job title, Hall’s role is about specifying, illustrating and ensuring all things to do with the civil engineering side of things are right. She looks after tunnels, roads and architecture and, with a background in engineering, she says she couldn’t be more passionate about it.

“What is good design to HS2?” she asked delegates at RAIL’s National Rail Conference in Leeds on November 5.

“And how, as an industry, are you going to deliver that?”

Hall showed a series of quotes that set that scene:

  • HS2 Chairman, Sir David Higgins: “It’s not just about the architecture of stations, but the land in between. We must think about everything we do in terms of design and quality, because we will be leaving it for others to inherit.”
  • Secretary of State for Transport, Patrick McLoughlin: “Great design is essential to HS2. This vital railway is a key part of our long-term economic plan. We want HS2 to make the country proud and show the world what British design can do.”
  • HS2 Chief Executive, Simon Kirby: “HS2’s principal objective is to deliver an inspired design, the best in worldwide design. The system will be delivered through all the designed elements coming together. Every design task is critical.”

Hall said that “it is important to build something that people will be proud to inherit”. Recalling her experience for five years leading up to the 2012 Olympics, Hall said that the Olympics made people “really proud to be British. But five years before the Olympics, the press was saying how bad this white elephant was, that it couldn’t possibly be finished on time, and how it would be a disaster and an embarrassment. But it wasn’t. And Britain was proud”.

Hall asked how we are going to articulate the design ideals for HS2. The answer is by the creation of the HS2 Design Vision, “a vision that sets out the design and the role that HS2 can play in being a catalyst for growth across Britain”.

Hall explained how they went about creating the vision, which was released as a published document in June: “We included people from industry (so that it wasn’t just a closed event) and asked them: ‘what do you think constitutes good design?’ The design vision was a collaboration across different industries. We created a design vision that focuses on three key aspects: people, place and time.”


 “We will provide a railway infrastructure that works for everyone, where everyone’s needs have been addressed. It’s a project that engages with communities along the route and provides an opportunity for talent to come to the fore. I’m very conscious of the need to address the diverse requirements - of meeting the needs of our audience.

“HS2 will affect communities for decades. Whether that’s during the construction period (which is longer than we’d like) or beyond. This railway will be around for 150 years or more. So how does HS2 engage with communities for the duration of the project?

“And how do we engage talent? We’ve been talking about skills. If you can’t excite young people about an infrastructure project or a railway project design like HS2 then what is going to get them excited about engineering? We need to work hard to attract these people. But we also need to attract existing engineering talent. Let’s cross-pollinate from other industries; not all the greatest ideas come from a closed industry. Let’s look to others.”


“I’m very much about place, about regeneration - creating identity in the right context. Yes there’s brand and there’s brand recognition, but it’s what’s more important is the context in which it’s done, and also about the environment in which it’s set.

“The most important goal for HS2 is economic growth for Britain. Improving productivity, and creating opportunities with stations in parts of cities, or outside of cities, to make a positive impact wherever there is a station. For example, I was looking at the viaduct at Meadowhall and thinking: ‘how can we renovate that area?’

“And it’s about retaining and enhancing an area’s identity - shaping HS2 according to the cities or the places that it will affect. It’s not just about plonking some design that may have looked great at Canary Wharf, but not in the middle of Manchester. It’s about understanding that context and building with sympathy for the environment.”


“This adaptability enhances the passenger experience. We wouldn’t be anywhere without passengers. And understanding what passengers want and think is absolutely critical. We need to use this opportunity to design for and think about the future.

“I’m conscious about future-proofing designs. Last time I travelled through Birmingham International airport some new ticket barriers had just been installed. Of course, I can understand why that’s been done. But I also wondered how long are we going to be using ticket barriers? Should we be designing HS2 to have ticket barriers? I see in a lot of meetings now that people are wearing ‘smart’ watches. Can those be used to scan us through instead? I doubt that my children will be using ticket barriers. We have to look at how things will be done in the future, and we have to keep the design of HS2 flexible enough to incorporate things that may not have even been invented yet.

“There’s huge scope for creativity, but it’s important to take the time now to design something that’s right, rather than rushing it through. We need to make the most of this opportunity. We’re not retro-fitting this railway onto existing track - we’re building something new. We have the opportunity to do something different.”

So now that HS2 has its Design Vision, what is going to happen with it? How is it going to be used? Part of Hall’s role is the creation of the Design Panel, which was announced in November (RAIL 788). A full list of the panel members can be found on the RAIL website. The group will contribute at regional site-specific panels such as at Birmingham Curzon Street station, to implement the principles behind the Design Vision.

Hall said that HS2 has already used it to write design approach documents, whether they’re for use in the design of a ventilation shaft, a station or landscapes, and they’re using it on the passenger experience, operations and procurement too. The Design Panel is independent and will hold HS2 to account on the Design Vision, checking that the project is meeting its aspirations. Hall believes this is an “exciting and important thing for HS2 to do”.

Hall concluded her address to delegates: “I’ve told you about what good design means to, HS2 and a little about how we aim to deliver it. My last point is to all of you, the people who will be involved in helping HS2 on this journey. Please utilise your Design Vision. We want this to be great. With everybody’s participation we can make Britain proud of this railway we’re going to build. Even more importantly, make the world take note of what Britain can design and build.”

  • This feature was published in the HS2 supplement of RAIL 789 (December 9 2015)

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