The global rail industry, which began here in Britain, has been going nearly 200 years. It’s a very stable industry and right now there’s more work in the pipeline than across any other sector.
Rail infrastructure is vast and there’s a very wide range of careers available; from digital to design, project management, quantity surveying and preparing new routes.
That’s the one thing about this business. It covers all skills and isn’t just about getting dirty. It’s an industry that needs creativity as well as ingenuity and it can appeal to people from all sorts of backgrounds.
In Yorkshire, there’s nowhere better to symbolise the shift in how we’ll build our railways than the National College for High Speed Rail. I recently had the pleasure of visiting this college alongside colleagues from the Railway Benefit Fund.
The college is aptly located in Doncaster, a town famed for its historic contribution to this industry. But as the technology used at the college attests, it’s definitely not a town that’s stuck in the past.
And yet sadly, mention high speed rail in these parts – in a town that is home to many leading national and international rail and engineering businesses – and there’s a good chance you’ll receive a lukewarm response at best.
I’ve heard many people say: “It’s not going to benefit me.” If you’re around 72 years old – like I am – then I agree. The chances are that it won’t benefit you. But if you can’t see what this investment will be doing in 30 years time, for your grandchildren and your great, great grandchildren, then you seriously need to reconsider.
HS2 won’t benefit anybody if it’s not built. It’s that simple. I say this as somebody who agrees that railways can be very expensive to build. They don’t seem to make economic sense when you think about them just in cost terms. But what happens when you build a new railway is that everything changes. Railways have been transforming society since the peak of railway mania in 1845.
When we talk about the costs of railway projects in billions, it’s important to understand that up until around a decade ago, our governments hadn’t spent any real money on them since 1947.
In the past decade, they’ve made up for it by allocating more investment on transport infrastructure than ever before in history. It’s remarkable, but it’s still only a drop in the ocean.
The amount of money we need to get our railways up to where they should be – to continental standards (let alone the world-class standard HS2 will be) – is enormous. You just can’t look at railways purely in terms of finance though. We need to think much bigger – this is about skills, jobs, progress and transformation.
Some say HS2 is all for the sake of saving a few minutes and will only benefit London. It’s much more important than that. Take Coventry, my former home town which is 98 miles from London.
When I started working in the music industry, it used to be one hour and 26 minutes by steam train. When they bought in electrics on the line, it took me just under the hour. Then I could commute every day to London, I didn’t want to live in London. I stayed in Coventry and later moved up north and bought my recording studios to Manchester. All that happened because the train allowed me to go to London and back in two hours.
With HS2, Doncaster in relation to London suddenly becomes equivalent to anywhere just south of Leicester today. That makes a massive difference for young people who don’t want to spend hours on trains.
It also makes a big difference for people with businesses. If you’ve got a business in London that’s paying extortionate rates for office space, you can now seriously consider a move to Doncaster. You can get a fantastic office at a competitive cost, with great staff and much better living conditions, and you can be here in half the time it takes currently. High Speed Rail offers a chance to rebalance Britain’s London-centric economy like never before.
We all know that the North has so much to offer. And, yes, when I say that, I mean the North East and North West combined. But if we don’t all work together, they’ll pick us off. Whitehall will never give the North what it deserves if the reception to major investments like HS2 continues to be hostile or lukewarm. All we’re doing is sending a message to London that we can’t agree on anything and speak with one voice.
There’s a huge opportunity here before us. Look at the National College for High Speed Rail and consider what this investment in infrastructure can do for this region. Then look at the next generation of young people in this country who stand to benefit from gaining world-class skills and exciting new jobs.
Ask yourself honestly, what do we have in our grasp, right now, that would give them the levers to access these opportunities – which in turn would help to rebalance our skewed national economy and unleash the true potential of Yorkshire and the Northern Powerhouse?
Pete Waterman OBE is a record producer, songwriter and TV presenter. He is also president of the Railway Benefit Fund.