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Engineering HS2: Andrew McNaughton is the man whose job is on the line

For Andrew McNaughton, the controversial high-speed rail network is about hundreds of miles of steel rail and millions of tonnes of concrete
  • @Jamie_Merrill

For a man with the weight of the country’s largest infrastructure project since the construction of the M25 on his shoulders, Andrew McNaughton doesn’t seem overly concerned about intense political pressure, angry protests or budget over-runs.

Mr McNaughton, the chief technical director of HS2, the proposed high-speed rail link that will run between London, the West Midlands and Manchester, has a long history on Britain’s railways and is far more concerned with the engineering challenges ahead.

Since joining British Rail in 1973 he has worked on dozens of projects, including the first high-speed rail line in Kent linking to the Channel Tunnel, before being appointed chief engineer at High Speed Rail Ltd and taking charge of the route and design for Britain’s most controversial infrastructure project in decades.

He believes the project has long been misrepresented. “For a start it isn’t a line,” he told The Independent. “Phase One to Birmingham and Phase Two to the North-East and North-West together make a Y-shaped network that we’ve designed from the ground up.”

The High Speed Rail Bill, which if passed will give the green light to construction of the first phase, was presented to Parliament last week. Anti-HS2 campaigners were quick to point out that it was the longest Bill in parliamentary history, stretching to nearly 50,000 pages and weighing, if printed out, up to a tonne – the equivalent of small car. But Mr McNaughton has other statistics on his mind.

“Of course we don’t start the design with steel and concrete – you start with the passengers – but that said, the first phase will see us pour 13.6 million tonnes of concrete and move up to 128 million tonnes of earth,” he says.

That first phase to Birmingham will have 14,600 engineers working on it, but the whole network will run a total distance of 343 miles and,  including junctions, depots and stations, will require 750 miles of track to be laid.

Once phase two is completed, sometime in 2033, the network will, according to Mr McNaughton, have “more than twice the passenger carrying capacity of two motorways”, with 18 services an hour in each direction, each train carrying as many as 1,100 people. It’s a vast challenge and one that’s already been labelled a potential white elephant, but Mr McNaughton’s confidence seems unshakable despite revelations earlier this month in the trade publication Building that all of the HS2 engineering design contracts are already running over budget to the tune of £10.6m.

“At a technical level, yes, it will have cost that much [the £50bn budget] and it will be ready on time,” he says. “When I stand in front of Commons committees, senior politicians and representatives of the community affected, I have to be able to say if I’m telling you something, it’s right. Not that ‘With a bit of luck we’ll get this right’.”

According to Felix Schmid, a professor of engineering at Birmingham University and a member of the HS2 Leaders Group, the main challenge for the project is not only creating a truly integrated network – but also one that is attractive to look at.

“Concerns about noise pollution are largely misguided as with a well-designed train noise levels are very low,” he said. The consequence of “nasty” neighbours is that “you have to build earth walls on either side of the railways” and “attractiveness disappears very quickly”, he added.

Professor Schmid believes the Government has “rolled over” and allowed many local campaigners to convince designers to build tunnels to reduce the line’s visual impact. More than half the route between London and Birmingham – including stretches of Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire and Warwickshire – will be in cuttings or tunnels and 48 miles of the whole network will be in tunnels at a depth of up to 50 metres.

He added: “Environmentally this is a very bad idea because of the enormous amount of energy that goes into building a tunnel. And the visual impact becomes very small [for nearby residents] but it doesn’t mean a very attractive journey – people don’t tend to think about that but if much of your journey is in a tunnel or below ground level you might as well have trains without windows.”

To the engineering community one of the biggest decisions has been whether to use a concrete slab track or the traditional ballasted track, familiar to British train passengers for its rhythmic clunkity clunk. It might sound arcane, but according to Professor Schmid it’s crucial.

“They need to make is sustainable,” he said. “The British are traditionally more keen on ballasted track, but at 200mph you’ve got to get it right and don’t want ballast thrown up damaging the trains and damaging the rails.”

According to Professor Schmid there’s also a misconception about the speed the trains will be travelling at. They are capable of 250mph, which means a 4.3 miles turning radius, but “most likely they will run at 200mph for early stages and still hit the proposed journey times”, he said.

It is this speed and the intensity of the trains running down the line that provide the biggest challenges for Mr McNaughton, but civil engineering questions aside, he is convinced there is a demand for HS2, citing surging population growth in England over the next 40 years. “Are people suddenly going to stop travelling? The answer to that is clearly no,” he says.

Next year sees the 50th anniversary of Japan’s Shinkansen high-speed network, which shows, Mr McNaughton says, how far behind the curve Britain is. “If I lie awake at night worrying, it’s because we should have been doing this years ago. If we’d done this 10 years ago, we perhaps wouldn’t have wasted so much money on other things and would have got it up and ready to meet the demand.”

HS2 in numbers

250mph: Top speed of new trains

343 miles: Total distance of network

750 miles: Total track

49 minutes: Reduced London-to-Birmingham journey time

40,000: New jobs expected to be generated by the project

14,600: Engineers working on project

2033: Scheduled completion date for entire project

£27bn: Projected ticket revenues over next 30 years

400: Houses due to be demolished to make way for HS2 line