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CIO interview: James Findlay, HS2

The man in charge of the tech behind the UK’s new high-speed railway talks about infrastructure, open data and working with SMEs

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In HS2’s Canary Wharf offices, everything is high speed, says CIO James Findlay. A year away from beginning construction of the controversial high-speed rail link between London and the north of England, there is a lot of work to be done.

The £33bn project is one of the largest infrastructure projects ever undertaken in the UK, and HS2 is responsible for everything from the actual construction of the railway to the passenger experience and stations, which Findlay says is “really exciting”.

“You have got to think about things like the passenger experience coming through the stations, how we can get people off the platform as effectively as possible and how they are going to interact with other services that are not provided by HS2,” he says.

“We also need to look ahead to what will happen in, say, the next 10 years and ensure all our technology systems – whether it’s the railway systems, passenger systems or construction systems – are open enough and able to cope with the number of tech refreshes that are likely throughout the construction.

“We might see this new emerging tech that will suddenly come from left field that might be game-changing. You have to create a platform that can actually cope with that.”

But there is still a while to go before the railway is operational. In the short term, over the next six to 12 months, HS2 will begin testing the market and begin looking for suppliers to help on the journey.

Findlay envisages a mix of larger suppliers and small and medium enterprises, who can bring some innovation to the table.

Mention “SME” to Findlay and his face lights up. “I’m very passionate about the SME market,” he says. “We’ve had quite a few already working with us in IT and they are very fleet of foot and innovative.”

Findlay says HS2 needs to work with larger suppliers too, because “once we get into construction, an SME would not be able to support some of the big logistical things”.

“It’s a blend of the two, but certainly more at the innovative side of the spectrum,” he adds.

The core technology will have to be well known because it needs to meet various international standards, especially concerning health and safety, he says.

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But there is also a “huge push” to be as innovative as possible and make sure that what HS2 creates will be able “to support the technologies of the future”, says Findlay. By the time the HS2 rail link goes live, the technology landscape will have changed dramatically, he points out.

But before then, there are some serious hurdles to clear. HS2 does not yet have the powers from Parliament to begin construction, but with the third reading of the bill due shortly, Findlay is optimistic.

“Subject to the various parliamentary processes, Royal Assent will be later this year or early next year, which is when we really start gearing up,” he says.

But it may not be as straightforward as that. The project is controversial, to say the least, with several anti-HS2 campaign groups attempting to stop it. Campaigners have petitioned Parliament several times calling for the programme to be halted, claiming the scheme will cost taxpayers money that could be spent elsewhere and that it is not environmentally friendly, among other objections.

Visualising data

Findlay says he understands there are people who are concerned about the project, and to deal with those, HS2 is collecting all the design, environmental and other data and visualising it so that people who are affected can access it.

“This programme obviously has an impact,” he says. “It has an impact on individuals, on businesses and the environment, and it is incumbent upon us to provide all the information that we gather as part of the development of the programme to our stakeholders, to parliament and beyond so they can have full interaction with it as part of the democratic process.

“What we have been doing with the data is creating 3D models and YouTube videos. All of that data, geospatial data and environmental data is on data.gov.uk as well.”

HS2 is constructing 5D models of the railway, factoring in not just location, but time and cost so it can interact with the supply chain in a “far more collaborative way to realise a lot of efficiencies within the construction of the programme and onwards during its operation”, says Findlay.

The organisation has also joined the Open Data Institute in order to support people’s interaction with the programme “so we can have a much more informed debate”, he adds.

Part of a macroeconomic strategy

“HS2 is part of a much greater macroeconomic strategy,” says Findlay. “It’s not just about getting to Birmingham 15 minutes faster – it’s much broader than that.”

He explains that more than 95% of the UK’s trade imports come by sea, in large containers that need to be transported further. At the same time, the UK’s GDP continues to drop and, coupled with various infrastructure and capacity issues, something needs to change, he says.

To deal with the trade volumes, ports need to be dredged, motorways need to be extended and the classic rail network will be at maximum capacity, says Findlay. The rail network must increase its capacity to deal with that, and the way to do it is to get inter-city passengers onto something else – which is where HS2 comes in, he says.  

“It is controversial in some quarters, but in others less so,” he adds.

Chancellor George Osborne announced in his autumn statement that the second phase of the HS2 project, the interchange at Crewe, would be delivered six years early, a year after the Birmingham interchange is opened.

Findlay’s enthusiasm for the project is obvious and infectious. “It’s a huge challenge – it’s not just high speed by name, but in its nature,” he says.

One of HS2’s biggest tasks at the moment is the infrastructure control platform. Based on the Government Digital Service’s government-as-a-platform strategy, the platform will be used right through the construction and operations.  

We know there are going to be so many technology refreshes that we cannot afford to be locked into any one supplier or technology
James Findlay, HS2

The platform will be a mix of in-house development and engagement with both large and smaller suppliers. The main factor will be open APIs, open standards and open data, says Findlay.

“We know there are going to be so many technology refreshes that we cannot afford to be locked into any one supplier or technology,” he says.

“If we secure the data as open data in a non-proprietary format exposed to us through an open API, then job done. The technology itself sits in between and will come and go.”

Findlay says no one has created a platform like this in the infrastructure business before, which is “very exciting”.

HS2 already has a proof-of-concept in place, which is being developed in parallel with the business case “so we can actually show people this thing”, he says.

Skills for the future

Findlay also supports the high-speed rail college that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has set up as part of its national college programme. The college, which is due to open in September 2017, will teach a mix of people coming through the education system, as well as working as a “top-up place” for people already working in the industry.

HS2’s head of service transition in IT has been working on how the organisation can back the curriculum on the technology side, and support apprenticeships and graduates.

Findlay says this shows there is widespread recognition of a shortage of skills and capabilities in the digital and technology sector.

“We are all fishing from the same pool and that is why it is a great opportunity to have some input into that,” he says. “It’s not often in a CIO role that you can influence some of that, so it’s amazing.”

HS2 has taken on a number of apprentices, which Findlay says “feels like you’re giving back to the wider technology community”. He describes HS2 as a catalyst for growth, and hopes the skills and capabilities gained from the programme will contribute to the wider UK economy.

The project may be controversial and a huge expense for the taxpayer, but Findlay believes it will end up saving the UK economy more than it costs. Working for the high-speed rail project means being ruthless about your priorities and it attracts people who are “energised” by the pace and work hard to deliver something they believe in, he says.

“Failure doesn’t even enter my head – it’s not an option,” Findlay adds.

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