It’s the environment (and the economy), stupid!

Systra worked on the Southern Europe Atlantic high-speed line between Tours and Bordeaux, which opened in July 2017.

Steve Higham, managing director of Systra in the UK and Ireland, makes the case for high-speed rail in terms of the benefits it will bring to both the economy and the environment.

Steve Higham, Systra.

Sometimes, the future arrives unexpectedly.

The claim that rail could realistically replace domestic flights in developed countries has long been argued, but it took the sudden crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic to make it a reality in France. The French government has made bailout plans for Air France-KLM dependent on a permanent reduction in domestic flights, stopping all air travel where the distance can be covered by a train journey of 2.5 hours or less.

Already, flights between Paris and major cities such as Bordeaux are grounded, routes which had previously averaged up to ten flights per day in each direction. The environmental benefits will be huge and swift. But it can only work if the infrastructure is there to absorb the sudden increase in capacity and to connect cities with enough speed.

Nobody would have wished for a coronavirus-shaped crystal ball, but this is a glimpse of the future that should be of interest to commuters and policy makers in the UK and elsewhere. The UK is committed to a net-zero-carbon emissions target by 2050, and the rail network is the greenest possible means of mass transit.

If we are going to get people out of the air, let alone out of their cars, we need speed and comfort and, above all, seats. Achieving that without extensive high-speed rail connections – and I mean the full-fat version: Leeds, Manchester, and even (why not?) a line north to Scotland in the future – will be, to use an understatement, something of a challenge.

It is, perhaps, inevitable, as well as unfortunate, that the centre of controversy in the UK has been focused on the question of speed versus costs. Yes, there will be significant gains in journey times, and these will matter more than some commentators will allow, when people are choosing between air and rail, but, as we know from our work in France and around the world, it is the huge increase in capacity that comes from separating high-speed inter-city travel from local stopping lines that will be most immediately felt by commuters and which will future-proof the network.

Railtex/Infrarail - NEC, 7-9 Sept 2021

It has often been said, but not often heard, that HS2 is not just a high-speed line but, effectively, a significant upgrade of the West Coast main line as well. Headway distances between trains are massively reduced when the line isn’t shared by both slow and fast traffic, as well as freight. Shorter headway means more trains, more capacity on both lines.

If the UK focused exclusively on upgrading existing lines, it is estimated that 2,700 weekend closures over 15 years would be required and the result would be slower trains and far fewer seats. So, we should be thinking about, perhaps shouting about, multiple lines for the price of one, which looks like a better, more attractive deal.

Water Orton viaduct on HS2, which will increase rail capacity as well as being Britain’s biggest environmental project.

Many people ask me – why is HS2 so complex?

My company, Systra, has worked on every part of the French network and many high-speed projects elsewhere, from Sweden to South Korea. We adapt proven methods and technologies, developed over 30 years, to meet local constraints and requirements.  

From my perspective, the UK is a small, crowded island, which means that any amount of new ‘national infrastructure’ will require change and a degree of upheaval. Yet HS2 is world-leading in its attention to environmental impact and protection of the landscape. These are benefits which will be felt long after the project is complete.

Bringing the project up to those demanding standards is creating a workforce with the sort of skills that are likely to be in ever-more in demand at home and overseas. You don’t need a crystal ball to know that concern over environmental impact is only going to grow.

These indirect benefits of the HS2 project, such a specialised skilled workforce with exportable expertise, are easy to underestimate. The 22,000 jobs directly created by the project won’t just fade away once it is complete. Many other jobs will be created indirectly through the positive economic impact that a revitalised rail network affords. It is estimated, for example, that the Bordeaux HSR extension led to the creation of nearly 14,000 local jobs.

In the UK, the recruitment of local people is already happening on a huge scale and projects like HS2 have, in Systra’s case, attracted skilled workers from other sectors, and even pulled them back home to the UK from other countries. Companies like mine are investing in British skills – we have recruited over 200 people so far on HS2 in the UK and continue to grow, cultivating professional careers to be proud of. The environmental skills being honed and developed through HS2 will have a lasting generational impact.

The broader economic benefits associated with high-speed rail are hotly contested, of course, and there is always a danger of wishful thinking, but French experience has been pretty unequivocal. The estimated wealth creation from the Bordeaux-Tours high-speed line is in the region of €760 million (£650 million), for example, with a big boost in property value and development. We have seen the creation of 15,000 new homes and more than 50,000 square metres of commercial space in the vicinity of new HSR stations, just for this one high-speed line.

The British Government’s Rail Sector Deal – a key part of its 2018 Industrial Strategy – set out an ambitious investment plan designed to push the UK’s rail sector forward and to help establish it as a world leader in modern rail design and delivery. These are laudable and achievable ambitions, but only if the sector does not neglect high-speed, the only way that rail competes effectively with the airline industry on a domestic level.

British engineers laid rail all over the world in the first great explosion of railways in the 19th century, exporting knowledge and expertise as well as locomotives. There is no reason why the UK should not be a global leader again in the second great age of rail, demanded by an environmentally conscious population.  Russia, East Asia and the Middle East are all territory that is still underdeveloped in high-speed rail technology and where an obvious need is apparent. When they come to invest, they will be looking for the best, and that can be British expertise.

When the COVID cloud clears, France will look to the skies and ask if we need to return to the old ways of doing things. The opportunity to embrace a cleaner, greener future right now is there, because the investment and planning was done before the crisis hit.

Another crisis, perhaps a greater one, is looming in the shape of climate change, and the UK has the opportunity to meet it similarly prepared.

Let’s not miss this opportunity.

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