Industry says skills shortage must not hinder HS2

Representatives of Britain’s rail industry and engineers have responded positively to Sir David Higgins’ Rebalancing Britain: From HS2 Towards a National Transport Strategy report, but expressed concerns about how the plans for high-speed rail might be delivered.

The Rail Delivery Group said that the growth in the railway over the past 15 years, and the “phenomenal growth in passengers and goods moved by rail”, would play a crucial role in keeping the nation competitive in the global economy.

Although supportive of Higgins’ recommendations, Rail Freight Group Executive Director Maggie Simpson issued a note of caution, saying that emerging plans needed to take “full consideration of the significant benefits delivered by rail freight”.

She said the fast-tracking of HS2 in Phase 1 as far as the Crewe hub was essential for delivering capacity for additional freight trains, but that there were “many unresolved details” relating to timetabling issues and the impact on freight facilities in the Crewe area.

“Rail freight is estimated to support economic output of £862 million across the north of England, serving the large conurbations and supporting the region’s ports and manufacturers,” she said.

“With road congestion affecting freight traffic as well as the private motorist, rail freight needs to be at the heart of any strategy to improve transport links from Liverpool to Hull.”

The Institution of Engineering and Technology’s Sahar Danesh said that overall connectivity and strategy for the transport network was key.

“A crucial factor to the success of HS2 will be making sure that individual transport projects are not developed in isolation,” he said.

“We must look at our transport network as a whole - that includes roads, rail and air travel. Having a clear strategy that allows Network Rail, the Highways Agency and local authorities to work together is therefore crucial to ensure northern cities can take advantage of the new infrastructure in their region.

“We’ve heard a lot about these opportunities for the major cities connected by the high speed line, but - until now - little or nothing about the potential wins for cities beyond the immediate confines of the HS2 network. Challenges around realising these benefits must be tackled now to ensure these locations do not fall behind.”

Danesh also noted the potential skills shortage, and getting the right people in place to deliver the project.

“Demand for engineers remains high in the UK, but companies are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit the people they need. This is only going to get worse as major projects such as HS2 move a step closer to reality.”

Danesh’s view was reflected by Philip Hodgson, rail and property department manager at engineering recruitment specialist Matchtech, who said that his company’s clients were “constantly challenged to find more cost-effective ways of delivering their projects against spiralling costs in London, where rail engineers are in extremely high demand”.

“These pressures have become so great that despite wanting to keep workload in the UK and so develop our engineering capability, many have resorted to setting up offshore offices where resources cost less,” he added.

Institution of Mechanical Engineers Director of Engineering Dr Colin Brown said that the skills needed for major projects could not be created overnight, and that the “talent and expertise from people delivering projects like Crossrail are national assets which must not be lost forever through a lack of vision”.

“We need to develop a clear strategy for sustainable and resilient transport links across the country,” he said.

“We need more than piecemeal projects if the UK is going to have a transport system for the 21st century. Having a clear plan provides confidence and allows for forward planning, which is critical for keeping costs down.”

  • This news story was published in RAIL 761 on 12 November 2014

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