What opportunities await the landscape sector from burgeoning railway expansion and upgrade plans?

£6.6bn worth of contracts for HS2 phase 1 have been awarded and further opportunities could be in the pipeline in the rail sector.

UK firms Carillion and Balfour Beatty are among the consortia that will build tunnels, bridges and platforms on the first stretch of the super-fast rail line between London and Birmingham says transport secretary Chris Grayling. "As well as providing desperately needed new seats and better connecting our major cities, HS2 will help rebalance our economy," he adds.

All that grey infrastructure will need rebalancing with green infrastructure. Next to all those tunnels and bridges will go earth embankments, thousands of trees, hectares of wild flowers and swathes of grass.

Last year Crowders Nurseries got a taster, winning the first and only landscape contract to date. It will grow seven-million trees and shrubs to shield the rail line for phase one.

But it is not only HS2 that has made rail such a fast-track opportunity for landscapers. Smaller scale but still very significant projects are popping up across the country, suggesting that the railway sector will not only reshape the map of Britain but the landscape sector as well.

Hultons Landscapes recently won a £1.5m landscape contract for part of Network Rail's £1bn Great North Rail Project.

Fast-track opportunities 

Robert Crowder explains: "At whatever level — and there's a sense the cost of HS2 might go up — this is a huge project. But it's not the only one for railways, which is why this is such an opportunity for the landscape sector. There's London's Euston and Old Oak Common stations, Birmingham's NEC and we've not even looked at big cities such as Sheffield."

Then there are the "indirect opportunities" — businesses will expand, firms will relocate, offices, farms and homes will be pulled down along the routes from London to Birmingham and Leeds to Manchester. All of this will need landscape and, like a Sheffield housing estate slated for demolition, amelioration work to offset the "environmental and personal impact of HS2", says Crowder.

"Opportunities thrown up by railways are so large, some people have questioned if the sector has the capacity to meet what will be a very big demand. Yes, we do. A few days ago I was speaking to a contractor in York who said business was good but they had capacity for more. Much of the work will be in the Midlands and the north, where capacity issues are not the same as in the South East."

But there could be problems elsewhere, he suggests. "The only real challenge I can see is around skills and labour, and this will be big, particularly with Brexit. That is why the training and recruitment initiatives by the likes of BALI are so important. The industry needs to get right behind them and support them. HS2 will run until 2033 at least, so we will need more than a generation of skills."

Former Landscape Institute president Kathryn Moore has no doubt of the challenges and of the potential of railway landscapes, condemning past attempts that focused "entirely on dogmatic buildings, which are stand-alone, self-contained, inwardly focused and impede access, dislocate adjoining areas and isolate communities — structures that blighted swathes of land and property".

Conversely, she adds: "Look at the success of the High Line in New York and the impact that is having on local development. The High Line is a mile-long linear park built on a section of the elevated former New York Central Railroad spur. Imagine HS2 arriving in Birmingham through a grand civic park connecting into a city of a thousand squares."

Get known to win work

Opportunities like this are not lost on landscape supplier Green-tech, which took a stand at the Rail Live trade show in Warwickshire in June beside rail-industry suppliers, engineers and machinery manufacturers. Head of sales Richard Gill says his Yorkshire company has also had several "one-to-ones" with main contractors at buyers' networking events in Birmingham.

"The railway sector is taking off fast and it's important for landscape businesses to get themselves known as quickly as they can," he adds. "We've supplied protection for 10 million motorway trees but we have not done railways before and there's not even a supplier list of materials for many of the major rail projects. Yet early legwork has got our foot in the door and it's been beneficial.

"Soft landscape for railways is going to be massive. This is good for the industry when you think of all the worrying things such as Brexit and the snap general election. We now have probably the biggest construction job ever, even bigger than the 2012 London Olympics, and it will benefit everyone."

Kings Landscapes in Milton Keynes tackled two Olympic village plots. Managing director David Houghton says HS2 is fantastic and a long time coming. The sector needs Government investment in infrastructure because this is the "foundation" of private investment and supports the kind of growth this country desperately needs, he explains.

"Investment attracts business and we are looking north, hoping to win work for HS2. We can see even now that Manchester and Birmingham are expanding with tenders coming from main contractors bidding for work. With the slowdown in London, HS2 could not have come at a better time."


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