High speed seeks high-tech and your vote

The UK’s second dedicated high-speed railway HS2 is seeking contractors for a massive signalling contract to manage operations on what is planned to be the busiest purpose built line in the world. However, a parliamentary report has slammed the project for a record of spiralling costs and questioned the government over accuracy of information. 

HS2, the designation for the dedicated new line between London and Birmingham, has started the search for a specialist contractor to deliver a state-of-the-art signalling and control system. The company says it will allow the UK to run some of the world’s most frequent and reliable high-speed rail services. They have been making that claim since day one, and since day one there has been criticism. Both things are still true.

Over the past few days, there has been some of the severest criticism of all, citing the governmental handling of the project. That criticism has called into question the accuracy of project reporting to parliament by senior government figures. The UK government says new safeguards have been put in place, and promised to behave. Also, as if that wasn’t enough, a public competition has been launched to name some significant infrastructure. Given the British public’s reputation for mischief, some safeguards have been applied there too, just so the public behave as well.

Signals green and signals red

The Control, Command, Signalling (CCS) and Traffic Management (TM) Systems contracts will require the winning bidder to deliver the work with a combined value of 540 million British pounds (603 million euros). The contract represents about half per cent of the projected cost of the line, currently estimated at around 106 billion pounds (118 billion euros).

The announcement comes just a day after the project was savaged by a report from the cross-party Public Accounts Committee (PAC). The PAC, an independent oversight body established in 1861, provides scrutiny of major publicly funded projects. It has been highly critical of governments in the past for, among others, National Health Service IT provision, and the decommissioning of the nuclear reprocessing plant at Sellafield in Cumbria, north west England. It is no surprise that HS2 has come under its gaze too.

Off course but reset says government

The Committee, made up of members of parliament from all around the UK, has said that the HS2 project was “badly off course” and it has implied that the government is not supplying parliament at large with “accurate” information. “The government unfortunately has a wealth of mistakes on major transport infrastructure to learn from, but it does not give confidence that it is finally going to take those lessons when this is its approach”, says the committee’s chair Meg Hillier, a London socialist MP.

For its part, the government’s Department for Transport, led by UK transport secretary Grant Shapps, said the project has been “comprehensively reset” since the period scrutinised by the PAC. “This project must go forward with a new approach to parliamentary reporting, with clear transparency, strengthened accountability to ministers, and tight control of costs”, replied the DfT. “We have comprehensively reset the HS2 programme, introducing a revised budget and funding regime, with significant reforms to ensure the project is delivered in a more disciplined and transparent manner.”

Still delivering for freight says HS2

After the independent Oakervee report made its recommendations earlier this year, HS2 was given the green light by the government. A dedicated minister – MP Andrew Stevenson – has been appointed, and a six-monthly parliamentary reporting procedure has been implemented.

HS2 is adamant the line will free up capacity for freight (image HS2)

According to HS2, when it is completed, the first phase of the line will release capacity for freight and passenger service on the network, principally the heavily used West Coast Main Line, which currently carries a significant proportion of all the UK freight traffic.

Going underground – you name it

For those tenacious opponents of the scheme, who say the true costs are being buried, and who would happily have the entire project buried, HS2 may be about to grant their wishes – sort of. The management company has announced a public competition to name the first two of the ten tunnel boring machines that will indeed bury long lengths of the 225mph / 360km/h line.

Cecilia, Florence or Marie – your choice – but not Borey McBoreFace – that’s a no-no. (Graphic HS2)

Thirty-five miles (56km) of the entire length of around 100 miles (160km) will be underground, including most of the ten miles (16km) into London Euston station. The HS2 company has launched a national vote on its website to name the first two of ten tunnel boring machines that will be required to complete the project. The first pair will be put to work on the tunnels under the Chiltern Hills, in Buckinghamshire, on the southern section of the line.

Vote now

Those mischievous enough to consider “Borey McBoreFace” will be disappointed, as a shortlist has already been drawn up by local school children. They have gone for “Cecilia” after Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, an astrophysicist born in the region who became chair of astronomy at Harvard; “Florence” after Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing; and “Marie” after Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. The poll closes on 5 June.

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Author: Simon Walton

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