The opening of HS2’s headquarters in Birmingham last month was another important date in the project’s long, and at times difficult, timeline.
Birmingham is at the heart of HS2 and is set to benefit more than any other city on the route. The supply chain is moving in and developers are fighting for the chance to reanimate an untended corner of England’s second city.
Directly beneath its offices at 2 Snow Hill, magenta Midland Metro trams skirt around the perimeter of the adjacent Snow Hill station. Part of the new city centre extension, it is another example of the investment Birmingham is making in rail.
As well as being the home to those who are designing the railway, 2 Snow Hill is where I found John Evans, chief executive of the National College for High Speed Rail (NCHSR) – the body which will find and train the engineers to build HS2.
NCHSR is celebrating its own milestone. As HS2 was cutting the ribbon at 2 Snow Hill, Birmingham City Council was approving the planning application for the college’s Birmingham campus – one of two new government-funded facilities being specially built for the college.
While city authorities manage the construction of the new centres in Birmingham and Doncaster, it’s John’s job to develop NCHSR’s syllabus and come up with a strategy to find and train the people needed to fill the estimated 25,000 positions and 2,000 apprenticeships created during HS2’s construction.
John, who was appointed in November 2015, divides his time between London, Birmingham and Doncaster, leading a small, but growing, team. During his career, John has held positions at Strathclyde Police, Diageo and British Airways. He joined the NCHSR from FirstGroup, where he was HR director.
Part way through the discussion, John slid a laptop across the meeting room table and enthusiastically swiped between artist impressions of the new facilities. One image showed a complete train in one of the workshops. ‘The big logistical challenge at the minute is how we get the train on site!’ said John.
Not that there is a shortage of space. The scale of the NCHSR is unprecedented. The two sites will have a combined footprint of almost 13,000 square metres and will cost the best part of £50 million.
‘For me to be able to take my passion for people development into a project like this is probably a one-off chance. It’s great to be involved,’ said John.
Courses at the NCHSR will be open to anyone aged 18 or over. Whether applicants are completely new to the industry or experienced engineers looking to develop additional skills doesn’t matter.
Through a programme of core modules, new entrants will be given a grounding in the basics of designing, building and maintaining a railway before choosing one area to specialise in. This is designed to give students a solid understanding of a railway as a complete system and not just its component parts.
Says John, ‘You need that grounding and bedrock… We want people to know where their work fits into the overall work scheme. So they need to know the language, they need to know what’s going on.’
Courses will take 12 months, on average, to complete, with time split equally between the college, placements and virtual learning. Working with specialist regional providers, the college will be able to create opportunities around the country, not just in the West Midlands and South Yorkshire.
Looking beyond apprentices and graduates, the college will offer conversion courses for qualified rail engineers or engineers coming to rail from another industry.
From March 2016 onwards, major projects, including HS2, will have apprentice quotas written into contracts, requiring a certain number of apprenticeships to be created relative to the amount of public money being spent. Although NCHSR apprentices won’t necessarily walk straight into a job, John said the college would work closely with HS2’s supply chain to create opportunities for its learners.
‘We’ve got to get those messages through to people and say if you work with us then you place yourself in a really strong position for employment in an industry that’s growing.’ Adding, ‘We can’t guarantee it but you’d be in a pretty good position.’
HS2 will also be an opportunity to create the diverse workforce that rail aspires to. Diversity is essential, John believes, to finding solutions to the challenges that a modern high-speed railway will create. And not just diversity in terms of gender or ethnicity; HS2 will need people with a range of skills and abilities.
‘It’s not a nice thing to do, it’s a need,’ said John. ‘If we don’t tap that wider talent base, we’re failing. And being blunt, we’ve generally tapped only 50 per cent of that talent base, if that, in years gone by. So now’s the chance to really be broad in that.’
Although HS2 and the NCHSR are being developed in parallel, and are ultimately working towards the same goal, NCHSR isn’t just a college for HS2. ‘What I would say is there’s HS2 and there’s the college,’ said John.
He went on to speak about wanting to see the college become an internationally recognised centre of excellence for rail engineering.
‘Neither Spain, nor Japan, nor France or Italy represents a single best practice model. They’ve all got great things going on but there isn’t one single model. So we’ve got the chance here to take the strands of all those areas that are world class and create a single world-class facility.’
Adding, ‘It’s about being a world-class centre. HS2 will require people on an ongoing basis anyway, but if we look at the wider industry then you want people to draw graduates from the college knowing that they’re of a certain standard.’
The next big milestone will be the opening of Doncaster and Birmingham in September next year. The challenge now is to find students to fill the classrooms. To do this, the NCHSR is creating a feeder network of schools, colleges and universities.
Says John, ‘Absolutely it’s a challenge, but I think by presenting the rail industry as an employment opportunity to that diverse group, you widen the talent pool and within that pool we know we’ve got to get the numbers. You then say we have an offering that makes you very attractive and work ready on day one. That’s a pretty good combination.’