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HS2’s university challenge

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Leeds is truly embracing its inclusion on the HS2 route map. As well as a station and being home to one of the two depots being built for the second phase of the project, the University of Leeds will soon start work on a £10 million integrated high-speed rail test centre. It’s one example of how HS2 is reshaping the traditional approach to railway research and training in Britain’s universities.

In October, the University of Leeds announced it was establishing a new Institute for High Speed Rail and System Integration. The institute, which has brought together 40 academics from around the university, will have the UK’s first dedicated, integrated high-speed railway infrastructure and vehicle test facility.

The site in Leeds will focus on several areas. It will look into design and manufacturing issues – including the development of low-cost titanium for rolling stock components and traction systems – asset management and maintenance, digital engineering and robotics, and overhead line technology.

Ian Roche, head of innovation for HS2, said he believes the centre will be a world leader and will ‘accelerate’ the vehicle and systems integration testing for HS2.

The brand new facility, which the university hopes to open within the next couple of years, is being built close to the site of the future HS2 depot near Leeds. Among other things, it will have a rolling rig that will be used to test how trains travelling at speeds up to 400km/h interact with the track infrastructure.

The rig will be able to simulate the particular track geometry of any route and could be used by manufacturers to test new trains – perhaps even the high-speed train that will eventually be operating on HS2.

‘It has a strong vision about where it wants to go,’ said Professor Peter Woodward (pictured), who is heading up the institute, describing the university’s vision to become a centre of excellence in high-speed rail.


Peter was appointed earlier this year as the new chair in high-speed rail engineering for the University of Leeds, prior to that he had been an industry sponsored professor of high-speed rail at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh.

Peter said the institute’s testing facilities will help de-risk the advance of high-speed rail in the UK. ‘We will be able to look at how trains talk to infrastructure, how they then talk to signalling, command and control systems… The difference with what we’re building here is the capability to put any track geometry you want through it. It’s not going to take the place of full-scale testing on a track but it’s probably the step before that.’

The institute will support the high-speed colleges, providing candidates with a clear pathway to pursue their education in railway engineering beyond the level offered at the Doncaster and Birmingham schools.

Professor Peter Woodward. Photo: University of Leeds.

Working with industry, the university is currently preparing a new set of courses to complement its high-speed rail agenda. ‘This is a developing picture but it’s developing very rapidly,’ said Peter.


Prior to the Leeds announcement, Heriot-Watt University revealed that is supporting the testing of high-speed slab-track systems. The university’s GRAFT facility (Geo-pavement and Railway Accelerated Fatigue Testing) can mimic the speed and dynamic loads of a high-speed train and simulate wear and tear equivalent to years of regular passenger service.

Heriot-Watt University is a member of the UK Railway Research and Innovation Network (UKRRIN), a coalition of eight UK universities leading on high-speed rail engineering research.

UKRRIN has received funding totalling £92 million – £28.1 million from the UK Research Partnership Investment Fund (UKRPIF) and £64 million from industry partners – to develop new facilities for digital systems, rolling stock and infrastructure research.

The 10-year research programme is supported by various industry partners, including Alstom, Bombardier, Siemens, IBM, Unipart Rail, SMRT, British Steel, RSSB, Thales, Hitachi, AECOM, Aggregate Industries, Atkins, Pandrol and Progress Rail.

The University of Birmingham will become a centre for excellence in digital systems, while teams from the University of Huddersfield, University of Newcastle and Loughborough University will focus on rolling stock and the University of Southampton, University of Sheffield, Loughborough University, the University of Nottingham and Heriot-Watt University will lead on infrastructure.

Launching UKRRIN in the summer, Professor Sir Christopher Snowden, president and vice-chancellor at the University of Southampton, said in a statement, ‘This major funding award is excellent news for the University and demonstrates once again how industry and academia can work in partnership for the benefit of the nation as a whole.

‘Combining our specialist knowledge with that of partners at Sheffield, Loughborough, Nottingham and Heriot-Watt, we will advance fundamental science to tackle the problems currently undermining the UK’s rail infrastructure and help create a sustainable network fit for the future.’


The University of Leeds may soon become part of the UKRRIN partnership too. Peter was supportive of the initiative and said talks were ongoing. ‘The universities will form a backbone in terms of skills, in terms of technology development,’ said Peter.

HS2 will no doubt lean on the lecture theatres and labs of Britain’s universities to turn what is currently a theoretical railway into something tangible.

Lead photo: Shutterstock.com