Design and HS2

The HS2 rail project will present a huge opportunity for designers, says Sadie Morgan, the chair of its design panel

HS2 is the largest infrastructure scheme in the UK’s history. It is a project of national significance, and one that has the opportunity to define a new chapter in all aspects of design.

I have been asked to assemble a panel with a manifold vision: design for everyone to enjoy and benefit, design for a sense of place and design to stand the test of time. This means a ‘total’ view of design, encompassing the design of passenger tickets, landscaping, tracks, furniture, uniforms and everything in between.

Our railways have always been a canvas for design: some of it stunning, much disappointing. The Victorians built their stations as landmarks: exhibition halls for the new technology of the train, and today railways are once again inspiring brilliant, confident, ground-breaking design. Following this resurgence of quality, my role, and that of the design panel, is to ensure that

with HS2, design excellence is non-negotiable. Design has to be embedded within the DNA of HS2 and everything it does.

There will be huge potential to become involved throughout the process, but as the project moves forward (it’s got a key Commons vote in 2016), there won’t be time to pick at the project around its edges. Everyone in the design industry has to pull together to make sure the project is done to the absolute best of our abilities. It’s up to us to create the conditions for good design. And none of us should underestimate the task ahead. HS2 has to look amazing, work seamlessly and be efficient, integrated, safe and cost-effective, which is a tall order in anyone’s book.

In addition, we have to make sure that HS2 works not only for its passengers but also for all the communities it affects. Yes, it is going to have a massive impact on communities across the country, which means it’s vital to engage with them over the life of the project, and work to respect and enhance the environment. With an influential design panel, we can ensure that HS2 does that.

The panel is going to be made up of experts across a range of disciplines: engineers, curators, perhaps even a philosopher or writer and, of course, designers, be they from an architectural, industrial, web, furniture or graphics background. As HS2’s construction will span decades, the voices contributing to the debate will change, so I envision an evolving panel that will develop as we move from civils to stations to rolling stock. Perhaps 40 people overall will help inspire, mentor and critique the process of designing and building this railway.

The panel will need to be light on its feet and defined by adaptability, quick-thinking and effective communication. Communication is conducive to good design because design is a collaborative process. If you have a project of this scale and this size, with so many different contributors and interested parties, you have to find the way to bring the best out of those relationships, and collaboration is key.

I am not unrealistic about the challenges this project will bring. I know we’ll see criticism and hit problems along the way. But that is part of the process that excites me – working with people and unearthing common ground. And there’s already a real buzz at HS2. You see the work and the passion and think – this is really going to be something.

The design panel begins its work this autumn. I can’t wait. It promises to be quite some journey.

Video from HS2 fly-through of the Phase One route between Birmingham and Euston. Sadie Morgan is chair of the HS2 Independent Design Panel

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