High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:56 pm on 14th April 2016.

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Photo of Lord Mair Lord Mair Crossbench 12:56 pm, 14th April 2016

My Lords, it is a great honour and privilege to join your Lordships’ House and to be speaking in this debate. I must first thank noble Lords on all sides of the House and all the officials and staff for the very warm welcome that I have received. I also thank my two distinguished supporters, the noble Lords, Lord Oxburgh and Lord Rees of Ludlow.

I have been an academic engineer in Cambridge in more recent years, after almost 30 years as a practising civil engineer, but I continue to have a close involvement with industry. I have given expert evidence to various Select Committees in both this House and in the House of Commons, most recently—and here I must declare an interest—on HS2 on behalf of the promoter.

My only previous experience of the Parliamentary Estate has been making sure that Big Ben remained vertical during construction of the new Westminster station and associated tunnels for the Jubilee line extension. It was no mean feat to build a very large station extending to a depth of around 40 metres—almost the height of the Big Ben clock above ground level—close to Big Ben itself. This was in the mid-1990s, when I was running an engineering consultancy and advising London Underground. I remember alarmist press headlines such as the Evening Standard’s: “Tunnel may give Big Ben that Pisa Tilt”. The “Leaning Tower of London” might have become a tourist attraction, but a damaged tower—or worse, a collapsed tower: no Big Ben at all—would have been catastrophic. The fact is that the foundations of Big Ben, constructed in the 1840s, are challenging. The Victorian engineers, wonderful in so many ways, were rather adventurous with Big Ben’s foundations—some would say brave. Modern geotechnical engineering means that we know a lot more about difficult ground conditions and ground behaviour.

HS2 will use the same methods for estimating settlements caused by tunnelling and the same innovative technology used to protect Big Ben. They are now well established and have been widely adopted on projects all over the world. They have recently been used very successfully to protect hundreds of buildings from damage during construction of Crossrail.

As we consider the case for HS2, we should look at it in terms of the economy of the country and the challenges we face. We must remember that modern engineering and infrastructure are crucial, as is money spent on research in science and technology. Even in these stringent times, investment in new infrastructure such as HS2, and money spent on research into new technology, is money very well spent. It is vital for our economy to invest in the future.

We are in some sense a victim of our own past success. As founders of the Industrial Revolution, we are now living with old infrastructure, much of it Victorian and no longer fit for purpose. In 2014, the Institution of Civil Engineers published a report—and here I should declare an interest: I am currently a vice-president of that institution—which concluded that not one of the UK infrastructure sectors analysed was what it termed “fit for the future”. Those sectors were: energy, strategic transport, local transport networks, flood management, water and waste. It reported that only two of the six sectors, strategic transport and water, were “adequate for now”. Only adequate for now, not fit for the future.

The World Economic Forum ranks the UK’s quality of infrastructure 28th in the world, and that is for a country with the world’s fifth largest economy. It is not a happy state of affairs. The construction of HS2 would very significantly modernise and increase the capacity of our rail network system, which is much needed as demand for rail transport steadily increases. HS2 would also strengthen connectivity between key city regions and create economic and regeneration opportunities. It must be seen in the context of a wider national transport strategy rather than as a single project developed in isolation. I particularly welcome the recent recommendations of the National Infrastructure Commission, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. These include the integration with HS2 of the proposed HS3, which would provide further modernised rail connections between our major northern cities, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Prescott.

We are all rightly concerned about the cost of HS2. It will be expensive, but I suggest that using the very latest engineering innovations to streamline construction and reduce costs, building on the example of Crossrail, will ensure that HS2 proves good value for money. I have personally been involved in Crossrail as a member of its engineering expert panel. It is currently Europe’s largest construction project and its tunnels are all now substantially completed. It is also on time and on budget. The point is that Crossrail has a very strong innovation programme and collaborates with universities. Working closely with partners in industry and financed in part with government research money, at Cambridge we have developed new sensor techniques for use both in new construction and on our ageing infrastructure. These novel fibre optics and wireless-sensor technologies have been tested and proved in the Crossrail tunnels and stations. I mention this because the research, funded by EPSRC and Innovate UK, has provided clear evidence of where very significant savings can be made in the future. Crossrail 2, recently recommended to go ahead by the National Infrastructure Commission, is already taking account of these potentially substantial savings. HS2 can do the same.

The digital revolution affecting all areas of our lives brings dramatic changes for infrastructure. This means much-smarter infrastructure. We will be able to understand exactly how a building, a tunnel, a bridge or a railway line is actually performing during construction and throughout its lifetime. Also, we will know how to prioritise what needs to be replaced and when, and how to manage it all much more efficiently. This will lead to more economic design, reduced costs and greater efficiencies both in the capital cost of construction and in the subsequent operating costs. All of this will be of great benefit to HS2.

To conclude, the economy of this country vitally depends on having modern, fit-for-purpose infrastructure such as HS2. This needs to be underpinned by government- funded university research in science and engineering. Implementing the latest innovations from such research in its construction and operation will be highly beneficial for HS2, as it will be for other large infrastructure projects. I welcome the Government’s recently published National Infrastructure Delivery Plan 2016 to 2021, which includes a £138 million investment in UKCRIC, a consortium of leading UK universities doing research in infrastructure and cities.

The sooner construction begins, the sooner the full HS2 network can realise the creation of more than 25,000 jobs, including 2,000 apprenticeships. HS2 will transform the way in which we deliver infrastructure, enhancing Britain’s world-class capability to export innovative engineering around the world. Its workforce will develop new skills in the latest design and construction techniques. Its suppliers will be able to develop exportable products and services of great benefit to our economy. There is a rapidly growing global market for high-speed rail, as has been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. HS2 will bring huge export potential for the UK.

Much, of course, depends on the continuing ingenuity of our engineers. I finish with the recent words of His Royal Highness Prince Philip in an interview in December for BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme:

“Everything that wasn’t invented by God was invented by an engineer”.

I hope that construction of HS2 will proceed rapidly and prove to be an outstanding showcase for UK innovative engineering at its very best.