Clair Mowbray explains why High Speed Rail must be at the heart of Britain’s transport infrastructure plans

There are plenty of reasons why investment in transport infrastructure is so important, but none are trickier to convey than how increased investment has the potential to help reduce the nation’s carbon footprint while also boosting skills and unlocking new travel options.

While the UK’s CO2 emissions have been steadily declining year-on-year since 1990, transport has become the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in this country. It might therefore seem a contradiction to suggest that investing in more transport infrastructure would help efforts to tackle climate change in the long-term. But it’s exactly what we need to be doing.

With demand for all forms of transport increasing in line with population growth, one of the best ways the sector can reduce its emissions is to invest in rail. Since privatisation in the 1990s, passenger numbers have doubled on Britain’s railway network while the volume of freight has increased by 80per cent. Enabling even more passengers and freight services to use the railway would reduce reliance on cars and further improve one of the fastest, cleanest and most efficient forms of transport available.

That’s why High Speed Rail is so important. Projects like HS2 and – if it gains the official support that it deserves from the Government – Northern Powerhouse Rail, will require billions of pounds to build brand new infrastructure (to add new routes, stations and services). Yet whilst such projects may appear to be vastly expensive, they will achieve much more than just a simple reduction in journey times.

A project like HS2 must be seen in the context of how it can free up capacity for more regional (intracity) services. The country is currently held back by its poor connections between and within some of its great towns and cities, especially across the north. High Speed Rail – whether it’s HS2 or Northern Powerhouse Rail – is a vital part of the solution. HS2 in particular will improve speeds, reliability, and enhance capacity between cities across the North and Midlands, benefiting places in within reach of its core stations, such as York, Coventry, Nottingham, Wolverhampton and Leicester.

Major upgrades to the existing network, alongside the arrival of HS2, will free-up space for more services within and between these cities. This will boost capacity for rail on the whole, opening up additional travel options for railway passenger and freight services.

With High Speed Rail so fundamental to the development of the UK, it’s essential that we are also nurturing the right skills for its delivery. And the skills that are needed for HS2 should not be viewed in isolation. The skills challenge faced by the railway sector is common to the UK’s broader transport sector. It is significant, but not insurmountable.

The latest figures published by the Strategic Transport Apprenticeship Taskforce estimate that 41,000 people are needed to fill roles on the road network; 50,000 are needed in rail; and 180,000 people nationally are needed to deliver the Heathrow Expansion project. The nature of work in the transport sector is also changing at pace and there are further potential skills gaps, particularly at the higher technical levels.

The skills gap is caused by a number of factors including poor diversity and an ageing workforce, changing demands across the sector, and difficulties attracting people into engineering disciplines and STEM subjects. Yet the requirement for higher-level skills is increasing because new roles are emerging across the entire transport sector. Developments in technology, a move towards digital transport systems, and newer ways of working such as offsite or modular methods of construction and engineering, are all fuelling this demand.

Businesses working in transport-related disciplines – whether they are engineering specialists, construction companies, network facilitators, or systems designers – all have an important role to play in addressing the skills shortage. Unfortunately, most organisations have a relatively short-term view of the work in the pipeline. When combined with the fact that it can take years to train apprentices and graduates for entry into the sector, problems can be stored for further down the line. A more co-ordinated approach is needed to deliver the transferable skills that will help tackle these challenges head on.

And this is another reason why major infrastructure projects like HS2 are so vital; they give a clear indication about the size of the workforce and the skills that will be required. There is plenty more to be done across the transport network in its entirety, but High Speed Rail is currently a significant piece that is missing from the puzzle.

With HS2 now finally underway, we are at a critical juncture where we can set the conditions for an advanced transport revolution. To achieve this, we must continue to support and articulate the long-term benefits that High Speed Rail can bring to the UK, while also responding to the need for higher-level technical skills, which will benefit all advanced transport and infrastructure programmes in future.

One organisation alone cannot solve issues like the skills gap or Britain’s CO2 transport emissions. But with a joined-up approach and better collaboration, our future transport developments can make a real and positive impact, to become much greater than the sum of their parts.

Clair Mowbray is chief executive of the National College for High Speed Rail, an employer-led college created by the Government to match industry’s demands for higher technical skills with British students seeking to develop world class skills.
Built on two state-of-the-art campuses in Birmingham and Doncaster, and a small ‘hub’ in Widnes, the College provides training for the high-tech engineers, managers, designers, apprentices and advanced manufacturing talent that is needed for the UK’s burgeoning high-speed rail industry, as well as other major British infrastructure schemes.
To maximise the potential of its courses and to better respond to the broader needs of its employer network, the College has recently put forward a proposal to change its formal legal name to the National College for Advanced Transport and Infrastructure.
If the new name is approved, the College will continue to serve the skills needs of the future rail sector, providing higher technical, world-class skills for high speed rail and rail modernisation. It will also broaden its offer to encompass developments across a wider range of advanced transport and infrastructure needs, including light rail, metro and freight, highways, airports, service stations and bus stations, smart mobility (including intelligent vehicles) and digital transport systems (including control centres, transport networks and maintenance).