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High Speed 2 - Express Service or Slow Train?

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by Paul Ford

With High Speed 2 finally given the go-ahead by the UK government, construction may start within weeks on the first phase of this ambitious infrastructure project, linking London (a completely rebuilt Euston) to the West Midlands (two new stations, Birmingham Curzon Street and the Birmingham Interchange at Solihull). Phase 2 of the project should see the line first extend to Manchester via Crewe and then from Birmingham to Leeds. It’s hoped that services on the completed first phase will be running by 2031, with the project as a whole finished and in full service by 2040.

The project faces a number of challenges. The ecological and social impact will be significant and protests have already begun along the proposed routes. The costs are significant, to the point where even at this early point Phase 2 is being questioned as being affordable. Even the key economic drivers behind the project are doubted by some.

However, one challenge given less publicity is the skills gap. A project this size provides employment opportunities on a grand scale, with the first phase expected to create some 40,000 jobs alone. However, many of these roles are from specialist fields in engineering and construction that are already under pressure. There are simply not enough people in the UK with the correct highly technical skillsets to enable the project to be delivered either on time or on budget.

The impact of Brexit has meant even more losses from the available talent pool, with large numbers of skilled EU nationals leaving a country perceived now as less welcoming to them.

The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) was requested by Home Secretary Priti Patel in September 2019 to review the Australian model points-based system, and a public consultation held. The results, published on 28 January 2020 are currently being considered by UK government.

Suggestions from the MAC include (and the Home Secretary has made very clear that the report is purely advisory);

      Reducing the skill level from Regulated Qualification Level RQF6 to RQF3       to be eligible for Tier 2 visas. This would include rail and rolling stock                 builders and repairers, skilled metal, electrical and electronic trade                      supervisors, construction and building trades supervisors. These would            also qualify for work sponsorship.

      Abolishing the cap on the number of skilled workers.

      Lowering the overall qualifying salary threshold for sponsored work                   under Tier 2 (General) from £30k to £25.6k.

If these proposals are acted on, and the indications are that they will be, then it’s possible they may go some way toward alleviating the skill gap. There may be other ideas as yet undisclosed that might also positively affect the problem.

But without some significant form of action, the first train pulling in to platform one at Birmingham Curzon Street will be running decidely late.