Applying the circular economy to high speed railway
How HS2 Ltd is designing a railway with the circular economy in mind
You’ve probably heard how the principles of a circular economy might apply to phones, cars or coffee cups. But how would you apply those principles to the UK’s new high speed rail network, designed to last 120 years?
HS2 is Europe’s largest infrastructure project, designed to increase capacity on the UK’s railways and improve connectivity between eight of Britain’s 10 biggest cities, create thousands of jobs and rebalance the economy. It will run between London and Birmingham from 2026, extend to Crewe by 2027 and then link to Manchester and Leeds from 2033 with HS2 trains continuing to cities including Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow. As well as new rail infrastructure, HS2 will also see the creation of new stations and depots in addition to the trains themselves.
There is a strong correlation between HS2’s strategic goals and the principles of a circular economy, such as the project’s goal to deliver value and the principle of retaining and recapturing value in a circular economy. To deliver this HS2 Ltd has been using the circular economy framework and has established three principles that will be observed throughout the programme:
• Keep resources in use for as long as possible;
• Recover and regenerate resources at the end of use;
• Keep resources at their highest quality and value at all times.
These principles are complemented by an overarching ambition to use resources efficiently.
So how do you implement these high-level principles across a major infrastructure project like HS2?
First of all, it is important to recognise that, as an industry, construction and the built environment is at the early stages of this journey. The challenge is to explore how the three principles can be applied to different parts of the HS2 programme and what actions or activities could help achieve them.
For example, recovering material resources, such as structural steel or felled timber, is a key priority during demolition and site clearance
For the civil structures, such as bridges and embankments, which have a design life of 120 years, longevity is of paramount importance. But for elements with shorter lives like the track and signals, being able to keep them at the highest value and then looking for opportunities to remanufacture components or cascade to other users, is most relevant.
Initially the focus will be on activities that could can have a short term impact. For example using high-quality felled timber for furniture or sculptures provides economic value as well as community and environmental benefits.
We are stipulating that all temporary materials used to deliver HS2, including packaging, are reusable, recyclable or compostable.
Key to enabling better management of HS2 infrastructure is improved data on the composition and provenance of its materials. This will enable development of appropriate maintenance strategies to extend assets’ lives and being better able to understand the value of the resources to increase the likelihood of their being recovered and re-utilised when no longer required on HS2.
It’s also important to understand and measure success in transitioning to a more circular economy. A recent thought piece, by the Major Infrastructure Resource Optimisation Group (MIROG), recommended tracking whether appropriate actions are being taken to enable a transition to a more circular economy. The paper looked at different metrics, such as using whole life carbon foot-printing, incorporating circular economy requirements into procurements, and looking at the quantities of materials used and waste generated. HS2 is building upon the approach outlined in the MIROG paper.
The principles of the circular economy are also being embedded with HS2 suppliers, through their works information packages. HS2’s circular economy principles are online and can be accessed by our extensive supply chain.
This is complemented by a range of activities to embed the circular economy into HS2’s ways of working by establishing internal social media groups, running an innovation challenge and promoting events including the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Disruptive Innovation Festival.
By creating this client-led initiative, the ambition is to enable HS2’s supply chain to find solutions that help deliver value whilst responding to the principles of the circular economy.