I remember reading general articles about study foods during my exams,  high sugar foods and fluids were generally recommended. Mars bars were particularly popular in examination halls, too. This sorry piece sets things right:


BBC iWonder

Can food improve your exam performance?

Can eating right improve your exam grades?

When you’re faced with a pile of revision, feeding your body as well as your brain may be the last thing on your mind. But can you give yourself an advantage simply by eating certain foods? And does drinking plenty of water really increase your chances of getting good grades?

Whether you’re a student or the parent of a child sitting school exams, are there quick and easy food tips to help maintain those all-important energy levels and improve concentration and memory?

How important is drinking water?

One of the best ways to maximise your focus is to ensure you are hydrated. Even mild dehydration can lead to tiredness, headaches, reduced alertness and diminished concentration.

It’s a good idea to start the day with a big glass of water or a hot drink such as fruit tea. The European Food Safety Authority recommends women drink about 1.6 litres of fluid a day and men 2 litres. That’s eight to ten 200ml glasses. Water is ideal, but healthy drinks such as milk or fruit juice count. Tea and coffee count too, but are high in caffeine. It’s best to avoid fizzy and energy drinks, which are high in sugar, as they’ll lead to energy peaks and troughs. Take a bottle of water into the exam if you’re allowed to; a study of university students found that those who brought drinks, especially water, with them into the exam performed on average 5% better than those who didn’t.

Which foods will help you focus?

Eating a balanced diet can help you focus and avoid illness. No single food is nutritionally complete, so you need variety. Try not to skip meals or your blood-sugar level will drop. Click on the labels below for more information on a balanced diet.

Use the above impression of a plate as a guide to the proportions of vegetables, fruit, protein and whole grains that should comprise a healthy, balanced diet. These proportions are based on the Harvard Healthy Eating Plate.

What’s the best breakfast on exam days?

Research shows that those who eat breakfast tend to perform better in exams. For the best breakfast, include slow-release carbohydrates, such as whole rolled porridge oats, whole grain bread or low-sugar muesli, as they provide slow-release energy. Add a protein food, such as milk, yoghurt or eggs, to keep you feeling full for longer. On exam day aim to include a portion of a food rich in long-chain Omega-3 fats, such as smoked mackerel, as they are believed to have brain-boosting properties. See Where Next in step 8 for a collection of these breakfast recipes.

Exam day special: wholemeal toast with scrambled eggs and smoked salmon gives you a good portion of Omega-3 fats.

Which snacks should you choose?

When it comes to snacks on revision and exam days, should you eat crisps or popcorn? Cereal bars or nuts and seeds? Click on the labels below to find out.

Starter kit: Find your top recipes

Find simple, fuss-free recipes that work around your lifestyle; whether that’s a tight budget, fussy family or strict schedule.

What should you eat for a good night’s sleep?

How can sleep affect your grades?

Not getting enough sleep may negatively affect your memory and slow your responses. Experts believe memory neurons that are responsible for converting short-term memories into long-term ones work most effectively when we are asleep. There’s evidence that students who sleep for seven hours a night do on average 10% better than those who get less sleep. But what should you eat and drink at bedtime to promote sleep?

What should you eat before bedtime?

A heavy meal too close to bedtime can interfere with sleep, so try to have your last meal at least three hours before you go to bed. Then have a small snack such as a bowl of high-fibre cereal like porridge just before bedtime. If you need sweetener with cereal, go for dried fruit rather than sugar.

What should you drink at bedtime?

Avoid foods and drinks that contain caffeine, such as tea, coffee, cola and chocolate, for least four hours before going to bed. Be aware that some people who are very sensitive to caffeine can still feel the effect 12 hours later. A warm glass of milk can help you sleep better.


What makes a language difficult?

There are two things that I like, although I often admit that I’m not particularly good at either of them: Maths and Languages. Apparently a deflector of Alzheimer’s and generally awesome to use, I’ve never known why I’m drawn to them. All that aside, here is a blog from The Economist (Economist Explains) about languages and the difficulty in learning them.

As it happens, I always used to say that learning maths was like learning a new language, though that is neither here nor there and has nothing to do with the following.


EVERYONE has the intuition that some languages are more difficult than others. For the native English-speaker, professional agencies that teach foreign languages have made it quite clear. America’s state department reckons that Spanish, Swedish or French can be learned in 575-600 class hours (“Category 1”). Russian, Hebrew and Icelandic are more difficult (1100 class hours, “Category 2”). And Arabic, Japanese, Mandarin and a few others are in the hardest group, Category 3, requiring 2200 class hours. But what makes a language difficult?

How long it takes to learn a language does not answer which ones are hard independent of the learner’s first language (nor the related question “How hard is English?”) Ranking languages on a universal scale of difficulty is itself difficult and controversial. Some languages proliferate endings on verbs and nouns, like Latin and Russian. Such inflection can be hard for learners who are not used to it. Several years ago, two scholars found that smaller languages (those with less contact with other languages) tended to have more inflection than big ones. By contrast, creole languages—which arise between groups that do not share a common language—are thought by scholars to be systematically simpler than other languages, even after they become “normal” languages with native speakers. They typically lack heavy inflection.

But inflection is only one element of “hardness”. Some languages have simple sound systems (such as the Polynesian languages). Others have a wide variety of sounds, including rare ones that outsiders find hard to learn (like the languages of the Caucasus). Some languages (like English) lack or mostly lack grammatical gender. Some have dozens of genders (also known as “noun classes”) that must be learned for each noun. Languages can have rigidly fixed or flexible word order. They can put verbs before objects or even objects before subjects. Yet it is not clear how to rank the relative difficulty of exotic consonants, dozens of genders or heavy inflection. Another recent approach sought to go around the problem by finding languages that had the most unusual features, skirting the question of whether those features were “hard”. Comparing 21 feature parameters across hundreds of languages, they ranked 239 languages. Chalcatongo Mixtec, spoken in Mexico, was the weirdest. English came in place number 33. Basque, Hungarian, Hindi and Cantonese ranked as among the most “normal”. The researchers did not find any larger similarities between “weird” and “normal” languages. (For example, they do not claim that smaller or bigger languages tend to be “weirder”.) But again, the caveat is that this only compares which languages are unusual in a global context, not which are hard.

So the two most robust findings seem to be that smaller languages are more heavily inflected, and that languages farther from your own in the linguistic family tree will be harder for you to learn. If you want a challenge, a good bet is to pick a tiny language from halfway around the world.

The Economist: Why don’t Americans ride trains?


AMERICA has by far the largest rail network in the world, with more than twice as much track as China. But it lags far behind other first-world countries in ridership. Instead of passengers, most of America’s massive rail network is used to carry freight. Why don’t Americans ride trains?

Rail ridership is usually measured in passenger-kilometres—one passenger-kilometre represents one passenger travelling one kilometre. One 1,000-person train travelling 1,000 kilometres would on its own account for a million passenger-kilometres. Yet American railroads accounted for just 17.2 billion passenger-kilometres in 2010, according to Amtrak, America’s government-backed passenger rail corporation. In the European Union, railways accounted for nearly 400 billion, according to International Union of Railways data. When you adjust for population, the disparity is even more shocking: per capita, the Japanese, the Swiss, the French, the Danes, the Russians, the Austrians, the Ukrainians, the Belarussians and the Belgians all accounted for more than 1,000 passenger-kilometres by rail in 2011; Americans accounted for 80. Amtrak carries 31m passengers per year. Mozambique’s railways carried 108m passengers in 2011.

There are many reasons why Americans don’t ride the rails as often as their European cousins. Most obviously, America is bigger than most European countries. Outside the northeast corridor, the central Texas megalopolis, California and the eastern Midwest, density is sometimes too low to support intercity train travel. Underinvestment, and a preference for shiny new visions over boring upgrades, has not helped. Most American passenger trains travel on tracks that are owned by freight companies. That means most trains have to defer to freight services, leading to lengthy delays that scare off passengers who want to arrive on time. Domestic air travel in America is widely available, relatively cheap and popular. Airlines fear competition from high-speed rail and lobby against it. Travelling by cars is also popular. Petrol is cheaper than in Europe (mostly because of much lower taxes). Road travel is massively subsidised in the sense that the negative externalities of travelling by car, including the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, are not fully offset, and most major highways—which cost tens of billions to maintain—are still free of tolls. And finally, Barack Obama’s embrace of high-speed rail has heightened a political battle over rail that doesn’t exist quite in the same way in other countries (although the fraught debate over high-speed rail in Britain comes close). Opposition to rail is now often seen as essentially conservative, and Republican governors oppose rail projects to boost their conservative image.

America’s national-level politics are unlikely to become more functional in the near term. So all this leads to an inevitable conclusion: what happens with California’s planned high-speed rail system matters a lot. If it is completed, works and is popular—all of which are uncertain—other states will undoubtedly take note. If California’s high-speed dream fails, it may be a long time before America has true high-speed service. And by that point, America may be ready to put in a call to Elon Musk. Hyperloop, here we come!

What is it like to start a graduate career in transport?


An engineering degree doesn’t necessarily mean you will become an engineer. It’s a vast industry with roles at all levels and stages of project delivery. Recent engineering graduate, Melina Christina, explains how a degree in engineering has led to a career in transport planning and modelling.

What do you do?

I am a graduate engineer in the transport modelling team in the London office of WSP, a global professional services consultancy. I was transferred two months ago, after spending eight months with the transport planning team in the same office.

What is transport planning and modelling?

The work undertaken in the transport modelling team is mostly to analyse the impact of developments on local infrastructure. To assess impacts we use a variety of modelling software packages to carry out junction modelling and traffic simulations. We also do dynamic pedestrian modelling to study the movement of people in places such as stations or buildings. This provides information about potential capacity issues and helps architects, who are our clients, in their design work. Transport planners help developers put together planning applications by producing transport assessments, travel plans, and network analysis.

Why is it important?

The number of people in cities is increasing at higher rates. We need excellent transport systems to allow people and businesses to move around and undertake their activities. This is even more challenging in the context of climate change, as the transport sector has a huge impact on emissions.

How did you become a transport planner?

My passion is cities; the way they operate and are organised. After two years of preparatory classes in mathematics and physics in Paris, I decided to enter an engineering school in France (equivalent to a postgraduate degree), providing training for civil servants working in transport, housing, building and engineering departments. Courses covered a range of different engineering areas and developed my awareness of the challenges faced by cities. I then specialised in transport, doing my master’s degree in transport planning at Imperial College London and UCL. I was particularly interested in transport because of its structuring effect on the city and because it is both a human and technical topic.

How does an engineering degree help being a transport modeller?

An engineering degree provides a good level of problem solving skills. These skills are transferable to the work of a transport modeller who faces problems on a daily basis when it comes to model building, validation and calibration.

Why did you want to work in London?

I always wanted to work abroad. I enjoy the challenges of finding my place in a new environment, along with meeting new people. I really fell in love with London and wanted to stay after my MSc. London is fantastic: it is a big city where you never get bored, but this is combined with a local atmosphere created by the markets and low height buildings. Moreover, there are people from all over the world. From the professional point of view, I wanted to work in London for the opportunities that it offers, as you are more likely to work on international projects and attend more events.

Why did you want to work for WSP?

I was attracted to WSP because it is an international company; it doesn’t only give the opportunity to work on international projects, but it also offers the chance to be transferred to offices in other countries and around the UK as well. Moreover, WSP provides services across different sectors, which means I can interact with a structural engineer one day and an environmental consultant the next.

Have you worked on any exciting or interesting projects?

After only one month in the transport modelling team, I worked on an international project, undertaking pedestrian modelling for a massive tourist attraction to be built in the Middle East. We modelled the movement of visitors in the attraction, going through ticket and security facilities. It was very challenging from a technical point of view.

What is the toughest part of your job?

Working in an English speaking environment is the toughest part. I can’t be as quick as I could be if I was in my own country, France. This leads to a lot of frustration sometimes. But I learned to be patient, and most of all, persevering. Communication is a vital skill for a transport modeller as it requires discussing and understanding the assumptions made and explaining our results.

What would your advice be to someone thinking of studying engineering or choosing transport planning as a career?

Keep in mind that engineering is much wider than you might think. Even transport planning is not only about transport – this is what makes it so interesting. Working on transport projects requires dealing with and understanding many issues from different disciplines. For example, transport deals with the movement of people, so it is important to talk with social scientists to learn about human behaviour.

An aspiring transport planner needs to be curious and knowledgeable about different subjects, and develop their open mindedness by speaking with different professionals to understand their problems, as engineering is ultimately about finding solutions and problem solving.

Why graduates should take advantage of the rail industry’s skills gap


As train travel increases, so does the need for talented graduates to join the sector. This is why it’s a great career option
Trains on a railway track
Trains on a railway track

We really need to up our game collectively and make the case for graduate careers in rail. Photograph: WSP WSP/PR

The UK is currently seeing unprecedented public investment in rail with huge projects set to transform our aging network for the future. Yet as the workload increases the industry is facing a shortage of skilled workers to deliver on the investment.

Travel on our rail network is set to increase. Rail travel currently accounts for 8% of all trips in the UK but this is expected to rise steadily in coming years. Journeys have already increased by 60% since 1995, the result of many more people starting to travel by train, particularly for business. And, to accommodate the extra journeys, timetabled train kilometres have increased every year for a decade.

To meet this demand, the Government has committed £38bn over the next five years in an ambitious programme aimed at ensuring we have the world class infrastructure we need to compete at a global level. The London rail project, Crossrail, is the largest infrastructure project in Europe. When it opens in 2018, it will provide trains for an estimated 200 million people to travel to and around London annually, increasing London’s rail capacity by 10%. High Speed 2, the ambitious plan to extend high speed rail from London to the north, will bring with it better connections and faster travel times.

Julie Carrier, UK head of rail at consultancy WSP, which has a large rail team working on projects including Crossrail and HS2, says there couldn’t be a more exciting time to work in rail.

“We are currently seeing a rail renaissance,” she says. “HS2 is a hugely exciting project that has the potential to be a game changer for the UK; it’s not just about high speed train travel, but connectivity, agglomeration and bringing opportunities outside of London. However, to fully grasp all the benefits that HS2 and other projects will bring us we must have a fully skilled workforce ready to deliver it.”

In fact the engineering industry in general is facing a skills gap in the future. It’s estimated that the UK will need 100,000 engineering graduates every year until 2020 just to maintain the current employment levels. One of the biggest problems is the lack of diversity – only 8.7% of engineers in the UK are female. By comparison, the rail workforce is made up of around 84,500 engineers and only 4.4% are female. According to a recent report by the National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering (NSARE), we will need between 1,600 and 2,000 new people in the next five years in signalling and telecommunications, with over 30% of these people being at technician level or above. Around 1,000 engineers will be needed for electrification and plant in the next few years, which is equivalent to 30% of the current workforce.

Julie says the skills shortage is very apparent in the rail industry and an issue that large companies like WSP are proactively tackling. “One of the biggest problems we have as an industry is our image. People typically think that rail engineers spend their time in muddy boots and hard hats, but it’s just not the case anymore. My role is very much a professional services role, liaising with clients, going to meetings with project teams across many different companies, travelling around our regional offices visiting members of my wider team. I do regularly visit railway stations, but more often that’s because I’m going somewhere, not working on them!”

WSP’s UK head of recruitment, Carol White, agrees. “We do struggle to explain that even though we do a lot of engineering work, we are a consultancy working up practical and innovative solutions to problems, not engineers on the ground. There needs to be better education on what an engineering, geography, planning or environmental science degree can lead to – we have many different roles across many different fields, all of which might get involved in rail at some stage whether it be at the planning and design stage or in project management. There is a huge range of different skills needed in the rail industry, so graduates of any science based degree should consider whether there is something for them.”

There are a number of initiatives in the industry to grow the skills base, one of which is the new High Speed Rail academy. HS2 is predicted to create around 400,000 jobs when it starts construction in 2017, and to safeguard its delivery, the Government announced the creation of the first new further education college in 20 years in January. Four areas have been shortlisted to house the new college which will train up the next generation of engineers – Birmingham, Derby, Doncaster and Manchester.

But until these engineers come into the industry, it’s imperative that companies like WSP attract in as many graduates and apprentices as possible. Julie says many graduates with degrees that could apply to the rail industry look elsewhere for jobs. “We really need to up our game collectively and make the case for rail. For a young person there are so many benefits and exciting things to get involved in – the advancement in smart technologies and how they are shaping the wider transport industry, the opportunity to be involved in the biggest construction projects in the UK and the chance to travel the world because this is ultimately a global industry. What other industry can offer all this and more?”

Free MBA* (paperwork not included)


Photo: iMBA graphicOnline MBA degree coming to U. of I.’s College of Business

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The University of Illinois College of Business will launch an online-only Master of Business Administration degree program, pending approval by the U. of I. Board of Trustees.

The degree, called the “iMBA,” will be the first online graduate business degree offered in partnership with Coursera, the Silicon Valley educational technology company that already offers a number of U. of I. courses through its platform of massive open online courses, more commonly known as “MOOCs.”

The online degree will democratize access to both the coveted business credential and the world-class faculty of the Urbana campus, said Larry DeBrock, the Josef and Margot Lakonishok Endowed Dean of the College of Business.

“The University of Illinois has a tradition of excellence and a distinguished reputation as a leader in research, teaching and public engagement, and our faculty is at the heart of that tradition,” he said. “All of the classes for the new degree program will be taught by faculty members from the College of Business as well as industry experts. In leading the new endeavor, they will continue our college’s tradition of excellence.”

According to DeBrock, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the U. of I. College of Business was the impetus behind the development of the program.

“We considered it an opportunity to reinvigorate the land-grant mission of the University of Illinois as a public university,” said DeBrock, who noted that the iMBA program will cost one-third as much as a master’s degree from an institution of similar stature. “We’re entering the online MBA field motivated in part to find new ways to return to the tradition of great public universities making an elite education available to all.”

The program also amounts to a total rethink of the online MBA degree curriculum, said Raj Echambadi, the associate dean of outreach and engagement for the College of Business and a professor of business administration.

“This will be the first for-credit graduate program from a top university to offer individual certificates in subject areas that can double as building blocks to earning a full MBA degree,” Echambadi said.

The “stackable credentials” will be offered in topics such as digital marketing, accounting and finance – courses that have their own appeal for current professionals, Echambadi noted.

Illinois is also leveraging Coursera’s innovation-friendly platform to reconceptualize business subject areas.

“Rather than simply transferring traditional MBA content online, we’re mixing academic disciplines into active-learning packages about how businesses work that are preassembled for students,” Echambadi said. “This is part of what makes stackability possible: self-contained classes with execution-ready content.”

“We’re finding new ways to mix content and active learning that’s better suited to high-level business leadership while also democratizing access to the degree,” DeBrock said. “For business education, it’s a truly historic occurrence.”

The stackable nature of the degree program also means that students are not locked into a particular course sequence.

“Students can take any set of courses in any order that suits them,” Echambadi said. “The iMBA program will work for the entire spectrum of potential students, from those who are curious and merely want dip their toes in the water to those who know they want to earn a full master’s degree right away.”

Students also have the option of taking a course sequence free of charge, receiving a Coursera-verified certificate or continuing their studies for academic credit through the Urbana campus.

“The iMBA is perfect for those who want to round out their STEM or liberal arts educations with business know-how,” Echambadi said.

Students can apply for the iMBA either before they’ve enrolled in classes or after they’ve already sampled one or more classes.

“A student or working professional could sign up for a class in a topic they need right away for their work and keep stacking courses and credits to build toward a full iMBA degree,” Echambadi said. “This is part of what makes stackability possible – each sequence brings together all the pieces of the puzzle in one place. The iMBA really redefines business subject areas so that they’re not confined to the way other b-schools or universities are organized.”

Offering an online-only MBA degree will ultimately help the U. of I. connect with students around the world who wish to earn a master’s degree in business administration but can’t afford – in terms of time or money – to push the pause button on their career or go back to school full time, DeBrock said.

“The iMBA really leverages the power of MOOCs for the first time,” DeBrock said. “The first portion of every course is open enrollment and involves people from all over the world, not just those who have applied and been accepted into an online MBA program. Instructors lead through a cohort system that creates constant, direct interaction among peers.”

Daphne Koller, co-founder and president of Coursera, said the iMBA program “reimagines graduate education to be more flexible and accessible.”

“Aspiring professionals from all over the world will be able to earn meaningful certificates for the business skills they need and always have the option to earn the full MBA degree, at an unprecedented affordable cost, from a top business school,” Koller said. “This is an educational model that puts learners first and is well suited to the needs of today’s workforce.”

HS2: 20 reasons why it can take 20 years to build a railway


HS2 sign

The HS rail link won’t be finished until 2033 so why does it take two decades to finish a project like this?

The government has announced a provisional route for the second stage of the High Speed 2 rail link between London and the north of England.

Its second phase – a Y-shaped section from Birmingham to Leeds and Manchester – won’t be finished for 20 years. Those working on the project say its sheer scale and complexity explains the length of time.

But there are already critics of the timetable who believe it could be completed sooner. The 20-year time lag is a “complete nonsense” says Sir Peter Hall, professor of planning and regeneration at The Bartlett, University College London. If it wasn’t for political considerations, the line could be built in about 10 years, he says.

But what are some of the reasons that could explain a 20-year project?

1. A history of delays

Any major infrastructure project in the UK has the potential to take a long time. The building of HS1 – the Channel Tunnel Rail Link – was completed 16 years after Michael Heseltine first announced it to the Conservative Party Conference in 1991. That was only 68 miles. HS2 will be 330 miles. It’s not just railway lines. The public inquiry alone for Heathrow Terminal 5 took nearly four years.

2. Splitting it into two phases

The biggest source of delay is that the HS2 project has been split into two.

Construction for the London to Birmingham route will begin in 2017 and be finished by 2026. The Birmingham to Manchester/Leeds construction starts in the mid 2020s and is due to be finished by 2032 or 2033.

Prof Hall, an advocate of high speed rail, says the phasing makes little sense. Why not start on both now so that they will be finished sooner? The same thing happened with the Channel Tunnel rail link, which could have been finished in 2003 but was done in two phases, he says. “The whole (HS2) line could be open in theory by 2023,” he argues.

3. Spreading the finance

An artist’s impression of the planned Birmingham and Fazeley viaduct

The splitting into two phases is because the planning and design work is so time consuming, a spokesman for HS2 maintains. But it’s easy to see a financial case for doing it.

HS2 costs £32bn. With the £15bn Crossrail not due to finish until 2018, the government is keen to spread the cost of the new North-South railway over a longer period.

Once Crossrail is finished, the £2bn a year that is being put into it will shift to HS2, says David Meechan, a spokesman for HS2. In other words, a longer timescale allows more of the financial burden to be passed on to the next generation.

4. Consultation

Consulting the public takes time. The route for phase one of the line – London to Birmingham – was initially published in December 2010. Consultation then took place and in January 2012 changes were announced. There was more protection for sensitive areas in the Chilterns and Buckinghamshire. But that’s not the end of the process.

An Hitachi Javelin train on the HS1 line

5. More consultation

Even after phase one’s route was tweaked there began a second stage of consultation and planning. Detailed engineering work has to be done looking at the exact route of the line. There are environmental impact assessments. Community forums are being organised along the route. Minor tweaks are still possible. It means that phase one will not be ready to be put before parliament until the end of 2013. That’s still not the end of the process.

The same process then has to start all over again for phase two – the Y-shaped route north of Birmingham that has just been announced. It begins with compensation for property owners facing “exceptional hardship”. Then the full consultation programme begins.

6. Buying land and people’s houses

The government doesn’t yet own the land. And to build a railway you need far more land than the line itself will occupy, says Ben Ruse, a spokesman for HS1, also known as the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. “You need vast swathes of land, for instance somewhere to store the machinery and materials.” It’s complicated and expensive.

The typical purchase price is roughly the market rate plus 10%, suggests Ruse. It can be a big business blocking the route or “Bob in his allotment”. Everyone needs to be talked to and negotiated with.

“We are not at the stage of CPOs on phase 1 yet,” says Meechan. “But we have said that 338 dwellings along the 140 mile route between London and the West Midlands will have to be demolished to make way for the new line. Most of these will be close to the redeveloped station at Euston.”

7. Demolishing Camden

The most disrupted area in the country will be to the north of London’s Euston station. More than half of the properties affected by the scheme between London and Birmingham are in and around Camden.

Euston is being redeveloped. As part of that a section of Camden will need to be demolished.

Andrew McNaughton, HS2 technical director, told the Engineer magazine last May that the London section would be the most time-consuming.

“The critical part of the construction is at the south end, with the complete rebuilding and expansion of Euston station and the long tunnels through London; that’s a seven to eight-year job,” McNaughton said. “Out in the greenfield away from London, most of the route can be built in two years.”

8. Tunnels

The sheer volume of tunnelling is a major headache. The route has been revised, with tunnels extended and several more added, in an attempt to remove noise and visual impacts.

Around 22.5 miles (36km) of the phase one route will now be completely enclosed in tunnel. That is 18% of the 140 miles of rail from London to Birmingham.

North Downs tunnel

North Downs tunnel

Much of that is “green tunnels”. This is essentially a deep cutting with a tube put into it, over which grass, trees and soil are placed. It is not as deep as a normal tunnel, and is much cheaper to construct.

The rest is “bored” tunnelling, an extremely time-consuming process.

“Tunnelling presents a real engineering challenge,” says Ben Ruse, HS1 spokesman.

“The North Downs Tunnel in Kent for HS1 was a mile or so long. A tunnel borer started from each end. When they met in the middle it was 4mm apart. And the engineers were shaking their heads.”

Four millimetres was fine and safe, he says, but the engineers wanted to be closer. It shows how exact the process has become.

9. Archaeology

When any big road or rail line is cut through the British countryside there needs to be archaeological investigation to make sure vital sites will not be destroyed.

The HS2 line probably won’t be comparable with the painstaking efforts made during the construction of the Athens Metro, but if HS1 is anything to go by, the archaeological considerations could still be huge.

Before any construction work could begin, archaeologists employed by the Channel Tunnel Rail Link project were charged with investigating areas of Kent, Essex and London. More than 40 excavations were carried out along a 46km stretch, and key discoveries included a Neolithic long house in Kent, a Romano-British villa and two Anglo-Saxon cemeteries.

A vast archive of archaeological data was also established.

Specialist archaeological teams will most likely be employed for the HS2 project, and English Heritage says it is continuing to “advise on the proper assessment of the impact [on listed buildings, scheduled monuments and registered parks etc] of the proposed lines so that Parliament can take an informed decision when the Bill is published”.

10. Regeneration

This isn’t just a railway. It’s also effectively a massive regeneration project. That element also takes time.

Toton – proposed site of one of HS2’s new stations

The wisdom of spending £32bn to cut an hour or so off journey times has been questioned by some. Justification for the huge expenditure is that it will combat the North-South divide.

“High speed will bring cities in the North and Midlands closer together, so we can really start rivalling London for jobs,” Mike Blackburn, chairman of Greater Manchester local enterprise partnership told the Financial Times. But delivering regeneration in practice will require planning and ingenuity.

11. Parliamentary approval

Getting anything through Parliament isn’t an overnight process.

The bill for phase one is expected to go to Parliament at the end of 2013 and receive Royal Assent in 2015. It is a hybrid bill, which means it is debated by both houses and goes through a longer parliamentary process than public bills. These hybrid bills are allowed to roll over into a new parliament.

Phase two will go to Parliament in 2018 and is hoped to win approval by 2020. Ruse says that there are profound differences between the Channel Tunnel and the new line.

“We were very fortunate there was complete political consensus.” It went through on its first reading. However, with HS2, there are a number of coalition MPs, whose constituencies the line passes through, campaigning against it.

“There is considerable opposition to HS2, more in the Conservative Party. It may be the bill doesn’t go through on its first reading,” says Ruse.

12. Ecology

Any major infrastructure project must protect the environment.

County wildlife trusts are concerned that the proposed route of the first section will pose a threat to wildlife. They estimate more than 150 nature sites could be affected, including 10 Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Four nature reserves will be directly impacted, they say, and more than 50 ancient woodlands lie in the route.

Protected species – such as great crested newts – can create a major stumbling block to any development project.

Bechstein’s bat – a rare species whose habitat could be threatened by HS2

For example, one dual carriageway project in Cambridgeshire was delayed when £1m tunnels had to be built to enable an estimated 30,000 newts to safely cross the road. According to the contractors, it took 18 months to get the necessary licence to clear the area of newts and water voles.

A significant population of rare Bechstein’s bats – which are strictly protected under UK and European law – has already been discovered in Buckinghamshire, in ancient woodland either side of the proposed HS2 route.

13. Bridges

As a rule of thumb, building road bridges costs 10 times as much as putting road on the flat. The same impact on cost and time is there when building railway bridges. The Channel Tunnel rail link involved building the longest high speed viaduct in the world across the Medway. And high speed rail lines require lots of road bridges as there are not level crossings.

14. Franchising and timetabling

One of the advantages of the length of time construction will take is that it gives a long window for setting up and doling out the franchises. The decision over which operator should be granted the franchise can be controversial, as with the government’s recent U-turn over the West Coast Mainline. With journey times slashed, the high speed lines will be much sought after by the train operating companies. Once the franchise is agreed, the painstaking work of coming up with a timetable can begin.

15. The UK isn’t China

The same project in China might have moved quicker. The 1,318km Beijing-Shanghai high-speed route went from design to completion in 39 months.

But quickly forcing through such a scheme would be unthinkable in a democracy like the UK. David Cameron alluded to the point in an interview this week: “It’s difficult to get things built in a modern industrial democracy like Britain – that’s why we need to get going now.”

As Alan Stilwell, transport expert at the Institution of Civil Engineers, says: “We want to make sure people are properly consulted. But it does involve a longer timescale than in other parts of the world.”

16. Local campaigners

Campaigners in the Chilterns have already forced more tunnels to be inserted into the plans. With Chancellor George Osborne’s constituency of Tatton being bisected by the new line, intense pressure from local campaigners is likely. The same thing happened with HS1 when campaigners accused the route of threatening Kent’s garden of England.

A protestor in Knutsford

17. Moving the dead

There have always been developments that have touched formerly consecrated ground, and the HS2 rail line is no exception. The route is expected to run straight through old cemeteries in London and Birmingham, affecting an estimated 50,000 bodies.

Strict rules apply to the exhumation of bodies. In England and Wales, the Ministry of Justice first has to grant a licence for their removal, it then has to gain planning permission and adhere to rules set out by organisations such as English Heritage and the church.

Reburial must also take place – usually in other nearby cemeteries, and efforts need to be made to contact relatives and inform them of disturbance. In London, the burial grounds are, according to HS2, disused, with no bodies having been interred in a century.

18. Contingency

The route hasn’t been finalised. Modelling the programme of works means that contingency time or wriggle room has to be built in for unforeseen problems. Sometimes, as with Wembley Stadium, the contingency period is not sufficiently long for the mishaps that strike. It was supposed to open in the middle of 2005. It opened in March 2007.

19. Health and safety

In previous centuries, it was a given that large numbers of people might die building big projects. During the construction of Brooklyn Bridge, opened in 1883, 27 people died. Nowadays there is more care taken over the safety of workers.

But the risks, despite painstaking care, remain high. Ten workers died during the construction of the Channel tunnel between 1987 and 1993.

20. Laying the rails

Once everything is prepared the track can be laid fairly fast. A factory train moves up the line laying track, putting down sleepers and erecting overhead wires, says Roger Ford, technology editor at Modern Railways. “They can probably do about a mile of track a day,” he estimates.

Even after the line is finished there needs to be testing to see it works. Months of it.