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Explainer: the engineering challenges of HS2

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Next year, high-speed rail travel will celebrate its 50th birthday. With High Speed 2 at the top of the political agenda, and its construction the UK’s largest infrastructure project in decades Felix Schmid, Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Birmingham, looks at what engineers and designers can learn from the examples of other high-speed lines.

Lessons from HS1

The only domestic comparison for HS2 is High Speed 1 (HS1), Britain’s first high-speed capable railway. Modelled on the French Lignes à Grande Vitesse (LGV), HS1 supports reliable train operations with a high level of comfort and safety, alongside the requirement of frequent maintenance to ensure the expected level of performance. Largely thanks to the experience of running HS1, the engineers designing HS2 are carefully reviewing lessons from France, Germany, Japan, Korea, Spain and Taiwan.

Challenges for HS2

The most obvious challenge is to ensure HS2’s full compliance with the Technical Specifications for Interoperability (TSIs), the standards that will allow high-speed trains from the continent to reach London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. Engineering challenges include:

  • infrastructure of the stations and the arrangements between stations;
  • type of track that supports the trains’ high level of performance optimally, while offering both low maintenance and very good aerodynamic performance;
  • development of modern railway control systems that offer a high level of accuracy and service resilience, combined with a high level of safety;
  • tunnelling;
  • segregation of the railway from its environment to minimise external influences on its performance.

In addition to these high-grade engineering challenges, HS2 raises issues for all local authorities that will be served by new stations.

Speed is not everything

It is important to correct two misconceptions about HS2:

  1. Trains may not run at 400 km/h as soon as the railway opens;
  2. With good design, noise and vibration associated with the new line will not make life in its vicinity unbearable.

Felix Schmid is affiliated with The University of Birmingham, an organisation that broadly supports HS2 and is a member of the HS2 Leaders Group, established by Greengauge 21 to help develop a centre for Excellence in hi-speed rail in Britain. He is the education director of the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education and undertakes research in the areas of railway capacity and sustainability of rail transport. Read the article in full here