HS2: On track and leading the innovation generation

The first phase of High Speed Two – the UK’s newest and biggest rail infrastructure project – is now well underway. Allan Cook, the Non-Executive Chair of HS2, discusses this attempt to future proof Britain’s rail network with cutting-edge technologies and endless innovation, and provide a transport system that will last 100 years.

High Speed Two (HS2) will give Britain a world class 21st century railway and form the new backbone of the country’s transport network.

The first railway to be built north of London in more than 100 years, it will connect eight out of Britain’s 10 largest cities, with 345 miles of new high-speed track.

The new employer-led college is the largest of five new national colleges created by Government to ensure British workers can learn world-class skills.

What is HS2?

High Speed Two is the new high speed railway being built to act as the backbone of the UK’s national rail network, linking London, Birmingham, Manchester, the East Midlands and Leeds.

The Construction Timeline:

HS2 - High Speed Rail 2 Railway Construction Timeline

Work on Phase One – the route between London to Birmingham – is already gathering pace, with over 250 live work locations, and we continue to put innovation at the heart of everything we do.

As well as significantly increasing rail capacity and transforming journey times, we are using the opportunity to ensure that ground-breaking technologies and techniques are being utilised in the railway’s design, build and operation.

This will ensure that the new rail system is future-proofed for the next 100 years.

I’m looking forward to travelling on the first HS2 train in 2026, but more importantly it also gives me great peace of mind to know that we are creating a transportation legacy that will allow my grandchildren, and their generation, to make seamless journeys between the North, Midlands and South.

They will be able to live, work and socialise where they need to and where they want to.

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Protecting quality of life

Building a fairer, better connected, more balanced country is one of our prime objectives, and our original approach to its creation will help drive innovation throughout our supply chain and the UK’s wider manufacturing sector.

Coupling best practice from other global projects with Britain’s reputation for great engineering, we are poised to once again become a world leader in economic and technological innovation.

For example, during construction, we are applying high standards to protect the health and quality of life of the thousands of people who live along the route.

With strict limits on noise, air pollution and traffic congestion, we have also set a 50% emissions reduction target by designing HS2 with low-carbon materials.

HS2 will use advanced technologies to ensure world-class levels of reliability, comfort and customer experience. Our railway systems will be designed to ensure that our trains will never be delayed by more than 30 seconds on any high-speed line and we are working to ensure platform dwell times are kept to an absolute minimum.

I’m privileged to have a unique perspective on the challenge of delivering Britain’s new high-speed rail network as Chairman of HS2 Ltd and the High Value Manufacturing Catapult.

For HS2, innovation is mission critical and we are looking to the brilliance of British industry and the High Value Manufacturing Catapult to meet that undertaking.

The Curzon Street Masterplan covers the area that will house the HS2 Curzon Street station in Birmingham city centre

The Curzon Street Masterplan covers the area that will house the HS2 Curzon Street station in Birmingham city centre, along with £724m in investment into the surrounding area. It envisages the creation of 36,000 new jobs, 4,000 new homes, and 600,000 sqm of commercial development.

Deconstruction for construction

A clear example of this can be found at HS2’s Curzon Street site in Birmingham, where we are employing a method never before used in the UK to demolish a former students’ hall of residence.

The accommodation is a nine-storey modular building constructed from tied pods just metres away from the busy West Coast Main Line that serves New Street station.

The student halls were designed to be sustainable in construction and in their use. However, we are finding that in demolition, it is very difficult to separate and recycle the pods because of the way adhesive has been used between materials like insulation and plasterboard.

A solution to this challenge has been developed by Birmingham-based demolitions company DSM with a new technique that releases each pod and lifts them down so they can be broken up safely at ground level.

We are now transferring this knowledge back in to the industry so that sustainability can be more robustly built throughout construction, use and eventual demolition.

During the demolition of former students’ hall of residence, a new way had to be found to safely break up and recycle the materials used during its construction. Birmingham demolitions company DSM developed a technique that releases each student ‘pod’ and lifts them down so they can be broken up at ground level.

During the demolition of former students’ hall of residence, a new way had to be found to safely break up and recycle the materials used during its construction. Birmingham demolitions company DSM developed a technique that releases each student ‘pod’ and lifts them down so they can be broken up at ground level.

More than just a railway

Elsewhere on the project, digital advances are helping deliver innovative engineering solutions to real world challenges that can unlock a more efficient build programme.

For example, HS2’s Tier 1 joint-venture contractor Eiffage Kier is working with its partner Finning to deliver an integrated system of information management to analyse and report on earthworks operations. This delivers efficient plant management that will cut costs, fuel use and carbon emissions.

HS2 is so much more than a railway. The project is also investigating how the benefits of investment in new high speed can be shared to provide sustainable low-carbon energy.

An artist’s impression of the proposed interior of the new Curzon Street Station in Birmingham
An artist’s impression of the proposed interior of the new Curzon Street Station in Birmingham.

Our innovation team is examining how waste heat from our trains’ brakes and engines can be harnessed to provide hot water and central heating for up to 500 new homes that could be built close to our Old Oak Common station near London.

Supporting jobs

Deploying elements through innovative approaches such as these over the lifetime of the project will create thousands of supply opportunities for businesses of all shapes and sizes and in many different sectors.

HS2 already supports 9,000 jobs and at the peak of construction this will jump to 30,000.

By working closer together, we can create an industry capable of leading the world, competitive in every sense, and with skills, processes and products that will help to increase the GDP of the UK.

It is reassuring to see the companies we work with harnessing new technologies and innovation to help us deliver Europe’s largest infrastructure project.

With Northern Powerhouse Rail and Midlands Rail Hub on the horizon in the UK, and thousands of kilometres of high-speed track set to be laid globally by 2035, those companies that step up to our challenge will strengthen their position when bidding on future infrastructure projects, at home and abroad.

We pride ourselves at HS2 on going beyond business as usual – even beyond best practice – because we can’t deliver a transformational rail service without breaking new ground.


Allan Cook CBE DSc, the current Non-Executive Chair of HS2, is a chartered engineer with more than 40 years’ international experience in the infrastructure, automotive, aerospace and defence industries.

His experience includes serving as Co- Chair of the Defence Growth Partnership, Chair of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, as a director of JF Lehman and Company, and as a former lead Non-Executive Director for the then-Department of Business, Innovation and Skills under the UK’s coalition government.

Among his other senior posts, he was also chair of WS Atkins, Leonardo UK, and Deputy Chair of Marshalls Group. He served as the CEO of Cobham from 2000 to 2009.