HS2, crossrail paused as UK PM and Prince both test positive

While there is controversy about the definition of key worker status, and particularly in the construction sector, the Prime Minister has tested positive for Coronavirus, just hours after taking part in a national applause in recognition of staff in the National Health Service. Calls have been made for a tightening of the ‘lockdown’ which is currently in force until Easter Sunday.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson soon at the doorstep of Number Ten Downing Street on Thursday evening, to join millions of British citizens in an act of recognition for the work of staff in the NHS. However, he has succumbed to mild symptoms himself, just hours later. The news comes just over a day after Prince Charles, the 71-year old air to the UK throne, tested positive and has entered isolation at a royal property in Scotland.

Stay indoors and save lives

The news comes after the chancellor had announced a long-awaited package of measures to support independent, freelance and contract workers – which will have a profound effect on the infrastructure construction sector. That, in turn, could dramatically alter bulk rail freight operations around the UK.

The Prince of Wales is self-isolating at his residence … in Scotland (Geograph)

Only this Friday morning, there were mixed messages circulating about the continuation of work on projects around the UK, many of which are directly supported by rail freight operations. Concerns have been expressed that too many people are ignoring directives to ‘stay indoors and save lives’, while others are pleading that they have no alternative but to continue working despite the ban on movement. 

Crossrail halted, Hinkley carries on

Earlier, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, had called a temporary halt to work on the massive Crossrail project, which has seen huge earth moving works continue in the east and west of the capital, both supported by rail. Many other projects are in full-swing around London, as reported previously on RailFreight.com. Examples include the Brent Cross Regeneration project, which heavily relies on rail-delivered materials. 

Work has stopped on London’s Crossrail project, but still there are large numbers travelling to work in the capital (Wiki Commons / Kentrail)

Nationally-Critical projects – like the Hinckley Point C Nuclear power station – are continuing with a reduced workforce, in an effort to follow social-distancing guidelines. The project, home to the world’s biggest rail-born construction crane, currently has over 1000 engineers on site. Although not directly connected to the rail network, the south west of England is a major source of building materials, of which large tonnages are moved by rail.

HS2 probably paused

More controversially, the long-distance HS2 project has been the subject of intense debate. As of today, some minor nature conservation works continue in the Midlands, but there are calls for the major constructions sites – such as the Curzon Street terminal in Birmingham and the Old Oak Common interchange in west London to be paused. Workers at the latter site have been among those using the London Underground (metro) to reach their place of work, and adding to overcrowding on the already reduced service running in the capital.

Some commentators are speculating that projects are being prioritised. Those in the most immediate national interest given every possible opportunity to continue without delay. However, there is also speculation that, given the duration of most building works, national strategic planning calls for a longer period of emergency measures than might be already widely anticipated and have been passed in the last act of parliament passed on Wednesday, before an early recess.

Commercial works shutdown

While maintenance and repairs continue, it seems certain that major commercial infrastructure projects are coming to a halt during the coronavirus crisis. Edinburgh’s St James Centre rebuild is on hold, and tram extension work has stopped in the Scottish capital. Many of Manchester’s forest of construction cranes have stopped operations. 

Work on commercial projects has stopped in Edinburgh, Manchester and other locations, but work on nationally-critical infrastructure continues with social-distancing in place (Wiki Commons / Geograph)

There is a likely knock-on effect for bulk cargo trains around the UK, albeit a temporary one. However, with the head of government, and the son of the head of state both confined to quarters, it seems that a temporary downturn in construction demand may not be the most pressing issue of the day.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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