Why should opponents criticise a college to develop engineering skills?

The following piece is a guest post written by Alan Marshall and first published on the Railnews blog here.

IT is truly astonishing the lengths that some HS2 opponents will go to find fault with the project — including, it now seems, criticising plans to train many more engineers . . . engineers whom we will need, anyway, in the future.

On 13 January – as Network Rail’s outgoing chief executive David Higgins began moving into his new role as chairman of HS2 Ltd – it was announced that Britain’s first Further Education College for over 20 years is to be established to train the next generation of world-class engineers to “benefit HS2 and other future infrastructure projects across the country.” 

Note the reference to ‘other future infrastructure projects’ – over the course of the next Parliament, 2015-20, the Government’s National Infrastructure Plan anticipates investment of £100 billion, of which HS2 will represent only about ten per cent.

So the new college is not planned to support HS2 alone. But as this is one of the largest single upcoming schemes, and will require virtually every type of engineering skill, it is hardly surprising the new north-south railway is one of the principal reasons given for establishing the new college.

Furthermore, many of the engineering skills it will help develop are also required by the current railway industry, which now employs an increasingly ageing workforce, with many of its engineers over 50.  Their skills need to be replaced – and enhanced – by younger people so they can take over and deal with an expanding and improving ‘classic’ rail network, with which HS2 will become integrated, as well as to work with higher-technology developments, for example sophisticated new traction and rolling stock or the European Train Control System.

As TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said of the new college: “Major infrastructure projects need a highly skilled workforce and we welcome this investment in railway engineering skills through HS2. We need better skills at every level of the workforce, not just for HS2 but to continue the investment and upgrading that our railway infrastructure needs.”

But according to Richard Houghton, a director of the HS2 Action Alliance, the new college “will be a contribution towards creating a service which will bypass precisely the areas in most need of access to education and skills development, and will draw local talent away to areas of which will benefit specifically from an HS2 terminal.

“For instance, look at the Coventrys and Stoke-on-Trents [I think the plural actually should be ‘Stokes-on-Trent’]: the last thing they need is further talent drain. If there’s no local talent, then there is no need for enhanced local education and skills development, and the economies will crumble around them because there is a dearth of skilled workers.”

I won’t speak for Stoke-on-Trent as I am less familiar with its current circumstances, but I live near to Coventry and I would certainly suggest Mr Houghton gets out of HS2AA’s Aylesbury base and goes north a little to learn the reality of life and see that HS2 faces intense competition for engineering skills and training.

Coventry, it is true, will not be served directly by HS2.  But HS2 will free up railway capacity through the city that is much needed, even now, to cope with rising demand in a part of the country – the West Midlands – where general engineering activity and manufacturing is roaring ahead … and with record exports. The British economy’s recovery is being led out of the United Kingdom’s remaining manufacturing hub. According to the West Midlands Economic Forum, in the past three years exports from the region have risen faster even than those of so-called ‘tiger economy’ countries such as Brazil or India.

Indeed, Indian-owned Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) is a significant contributor to the export boom and is increasingly searching for more skilled people.  The railway, too, is an indirect beneficiary, with more and more trains being required to take the finished JLR products from Solihull and Castle Bromwich – or increasing numbers of motor car engines from the BMW factory at Hams Hall – to ports such as Felixstowe and Southampton for export to both mainland Europe or to the rest of the world, particularly to China.

Far from there being “no need for enhanced local education and skills development” in Coventry – as HS2AA’s Richard Houghton claims – JLR’s requirements alone have already led to Warwick University (which, despite its title, is located well within the City of Coventry, mid way between Canley and Tile Hill rail stations) agreeing with the Warwick Motor Group and JLR to the development of a National Automotive Innovation Campus.

The University’s announcement of the deal last November said the new facility would be “an iconic £100 million building” that will “foster collaboration, cohesion and cross-fertilisation of knowledge.”

So the automotive industry in the West Midlands, helped by Warwick University in Coventry, is potentially ahead of the rail industry, which is now playing catch-up for HS2, the wider industry and other upcoming infrastructure projects by planning to provide a major new facility to train the next generation of engineers – civils, mechanical, electrical.

For the past half century, Derby has been a key centre of research and development for the railway industry – ever since British Rail foresightedly established the Railway Technical Centre there 50 years ago – so perhaps it is appropriate that Derby University has been quick to propose its School of Engineering and Technology as home to the new college for railways and other major infrastructure projects.

According to HS2 Ltd the new rail engineering college “forms part of the Government’s work with HS2 Ltd to ensure the new north-south railway delivers a tangible skills legacy that will serve the UK for the next century and continue the proud tradition the UK has for worldwide demand for its engineering expertise.”

David Higgins added: “This country produces some of the best engineers to be found anywhere in the world. The problem is that there aren’t enough of them, and there isn’t a long enough guaranteed work-stream to keep them here. So they tend to go overseas.

“HS2 provides us with a unique chance to address both issues. The sheer length of the project means we can offer people a rewarding career in engineering staying in this country, whilst the multiplicity of skills required means we will be equipping a new generation with experience at the cutting edge of technology.”

And, despite the views of HS2AA’s Houghton, places like Coventry will benefit from HS2.  Recognising that it should seek to get the most out of HS2, Coventry city council last year withdrew its objections and ended its membership of the 51M group of local authorities, led by Buckinghamshire, opposing the scheme.

When the first phase of HS2 is completed, three London-Birmingham-and-beyond intercity services an hour will transfer to the new line, making room for three additional services over the present route between the West Midlands, Milton Keynes and London, offering much more capacity at Coventry.

The need for extra capacity is underlined by the fact that, of the stations around the country with the greatest increase in passengers during the last five years, Coventry recorded the highest growth – 30 per cent.

The city council is also anxious to regain direct services to the East Midlands and North East, which Coventry lost in 2008 when the Virgin High Frequency (VHF) timetable resulted in insufficient capacity for CrossCountry services to Leeds and Newcastle, which are now routed via Solihull.

And due to the intensity of 200km/h Virgin north-south trains through the Trent Valley, the loss of pathing across Nuneaton meant the Coventry-Leciester-Nottingham service had to be withdrawn. 

Redoubling the Coventry-Leamington line south of Kenilworth during the forthcoming Control Period 5 could enable the Newcastle CrossCountry service to return to the ‘Coventry Corridor’ – and the proposal I put forward with Michael Byng last year for the Whitacre Link (restoration of the original Stonebridge Railway) is acknowledged by Coventry city council as an ideal way not only of connecting the city with HS2 but of offering a means to operate services directly from Coventry and Warwickshire to the East Midlands, via Leicester or Derby.

It really seems that HS2AA’s Richard Houghton – who has distinguished himself in recent pronouncements by claiming that HS2 will do nothing to create extra capacity for commuters into London and Manchester (when it will actually create significant additional capacity by releasing train paths and/or terminal platform space) and by wrongly claiming levels of overspending on earlier big projects by averaging the percentages, rather than averaging the actual costs – should gain a better understanding of what HS2 is really intended to achieve.

As David Higgins said in welcoming the new Further Education College for railway engineering skills: “HS2 gives us the chance not just to re-balance the economic geography of the country, but also our national skills base. It is an opportunity we should seize.”

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