I must admit that my eyebrows were raised recently when, during the course of a discussion in a session of the HS2 Select Committee considering those who benefit from the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), recent Committee appointee Mark Hendrick MP identified passengers of HS2 as amongst those beneficiaries (see footnote 1). His claim that “you can still appreciate the amenity of the landscape from a high speed track” was countered with a touch of irony, I detect, by Timothy Straker QC, Counsel for the four statutory bodies responsible for the Chilterns AONB (see footnote 2):
“It’s certainly true, sir, that those travelling on the high speed train for the 12 kilometres or so where it’s above ground level would get a glimpse of the Chilterns AONB. It would be a glimpse because they’re obviously travelling quite fast through. One doesn’t want to diminish the enjoyment of the passengers of the train whose principal preoccupation, it may be supposed, will nonetheless be getting to Birmingham as quickly as possible, but on the other hand one has rather more people and rather a bigger consideration in terms of the AONB itself and those people who are coming to visit in the ordinary way – the present way – as opposed to sitting on the high speed train going through.”
By the time that Mr Straker had pointed out to Mr Hendrick that passengers “would have something of the order of five and a half seconds on the viaducts” in which to enjoy the scenery, I sense that his tongue was firmly implanted in his cheek (see footnote 3):
MR HENDRICK: It’s five seconds of pleasure you wouldn’t otherwise have!
MR STRAKER QC: That’s right. Some of the acutest pleasure in the world can be of short dimensions! I readily accept that proposition.
My feeling, from personal observation, is that most of the passengers on HS2 as it passes through the AONB may well miss this cherished five and a half seconds, as their eyes will be firmly glued to their smart phones, tablets and laptops – for amusement purposes only you will understand, as it is official policy that passengers don’t work on trains.
It is, however, going to be a characteristic of a journey on Phase 1 HS2 that the view from the train windows is unlikely to offer much in the way of unobstructed landscape vistas. This is largely due to a combination of the rolling nature of much of the landscape, the predilection for using spoil for trackside screening earthworks, the promised planting of vegetation to hide the railway and measures to lessen noise nuisance.
Take, by way of an example, my home section of the HS2 route, which is the 7.2 km passage through Community Forum Area (CFA) 17 as HS2 negotiates typically rolling countryside. The route would enter CFA 17 from the south shortly after emerging from a short bored tunnel. It will then be on embankment for about 1 km, but shielded by screening earthworks; the only glimpse of the countryside offered to passengers over this section would be when the train passes over a 140 metre-long viaduct. The track would then run in cutting for 2.1 km, with no possibility of viewing anything other than the cutting side or a shielding earth bank where the cutting was shallower. The route would then be back on embankment for 1.9 km, but again views would be blocked by screening earthworks, except for a section of 110 metres over a viaduct. For the remaining 2.2 km the track would again be in cutting, with screening earthworks and planting at the shallower section as it passes out of CFA 17. So, rather like the Chilterns, the glimpses that passengers will snatch of our lovely countryside around Offchurch and Cubbington will be limited to two short sections over viaduct, amounting in total to a precious 2.5 seconds of unadulterated pleasure for passengers during a total transit of the route section which will take about 70 seconds.
It is clear that, if CFA 17 is anything to go by, HS2 will not be the choice for those seeking to enjoy views of the passing countryside.
One person who appears to be concerned about this state of affairs is Geoff Inskip, Director General for Centro (the transport authority in the West Midlands). He declared to the Public Bill Committee sitting on the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill that he wanted to ensure that passengers “have a very good journey experience” and added (see footnote 4):
“I have to say that on mitigation, I am not in favour of so much tunnel. From a passenger perspective, we live in a very beautiful country and it is nice to sit on a train and look out the windows and admire our countryside.”
Yes fine Mr Inskip, but that sentiment does rather beg the question of how long we will retain “a very beautiful country” if we keep covering it in concrete.
Sitting on the same witness panel that day was Sir Richard Leese, the Leader of Manchester City Council. He added (see footnote 4):
“It is also worth saying that quite often people like looking at the trains as well. I think that the idea that a railway line is going to scar the English countryside is one of the most nonsensical things that I have ever heard.”
I too have come across such people that “like looking at trains”; they are usually to be found at the end of station platforms armed with notebook and camera. Perhaps Sir Richard likes to join them in his spare time. As for passing judgement on what will, or will not, scar our countryside, perhaps a councillor for one of our great cities is probably not the best qualified arbiter.
I am pleased to note that even HS2 Ltd does not occupy quite so extreme a position as these two gentlemen. The company’s engineers seem quite happy to block passengers’ views with earthworks at every opportunity; after all they’ve got to do something with all of that excavated material!
I would like to suggest a compromise. HS2 trains should be fitted with LCD screens in place of the conventional transparent glass. Then passengers would be free to choose from a selection of videos of landscape to simulate the view through the window. This would even offer the possibility of allowing a choice of landscape type; perhaps views of the Alps or of a desert landscape in place of the English countryside.
There is, of course, another less 21st Century solution. If you want splendid views of the Chilterns from a train, take the Chiltern Railways service.
- The discussion took place during the public session held by the HS2 Select Committee on the afternoon of Wednesday 15thJuly 2015. The relevant passage is recorded from paragraph 325 of the transcript and may be viewed from 15:36 hrs in the video of the session.
- See paragraph 331 in the transcript of the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 15thJuly 2015.
- See paragraphs 334 to 338 in the transcript of the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 15thJuly 2015.
- For both Mr Inskip’s and Sir Richard’s comments, see column 29 of the House of Commons Official Report for the First Sitting of the Public Bill Committee for the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill held on the morning of Tuesday 9thJuly 2013.
Important Note: The record of the proceedings of the HS2 Select Committee from which the quotes reproduced in this blog are taken is an uncorrected transcript of evidence, which is not yet an approved formal record. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record in such instances, and it may therefore be subject to changes being made in the light of any such corrections being requested.