Dr. Simon Batterbury is an Associate Professor in the Deptartment of Resource Management and Geography at the University of Melbourne. Here’s his take on HS2 as recently published in A to B Magazine.
The High Speed 2 rail line from London to Birmingham is not a ‘sustainable’ transport project, for several reasons. Having just completed six months living in an HS2-blighted town (Wendover), I have had daily discussions about the project, attended a DfT roadshow, and read most of the hundreds of pages of official HS2 reports and analyses. The issues are numerous, but here are the most important as I see them.
Is HS2 in the ‘National Interest’? The economic case for the line has been overstated using speculative economic modelling, with insufficient attention to non-economic factors. Estimates of job generation from transport projects are, by the consultants’ admission, difficult to model, and only estimates exist. But we know that HS2 will funnel more jobs into London, rather than spreading them more widely. Nobody involved in the debate seriously believes a reverse flow of jobs to the Midlands, Scotland and the North of England will occur any time soon after construction.
However the main issue is spending £34 billion (plus likely overruns) on a megaproject during a major recession. To allocate this sum to provide more train capacity and a quicker journey to and from Birmingham really stretches credibility. Since there will be no commuter stops along the line, it is of no economic or social benefit to 90 percent of the people along its route. There is a real risk of poorer services by the franchises running the existing lines since they will lose long distance business (65% of HS2 passengers are predicted to come from existing lines) and there are echo effects on other lines. Leisure, tourism and long distance commuting trips would of course be easier, but tickets are likely to be costly, as HS1 has shown, depending on franchise arrangements. The Dods report published in June 2011 (pro-HS2, business-backed) surveyed a panel that included British transport professionals, and ranked their priorities. They found: “HS2 came behind the electrification and modernisation of existing rail lines (at the expense of High Speed), improving our national roads network and, in the case of transportation professionals, was even ranked as being less important than both an integrated freight network and the proliferation of light rail.” Dods Report, June 2011
Moving more freight on the railways… now there’s a thought.
Environmental Costs; There is no Environmental Impact Assessment or Strategic Environmental Assessment available for public consultation, only a brief ‘Appraisal of Sustainability’ that is sketchy on cultural preservation and focuses on ‘regeneration’ benefits. The lack of a full independent assessment for a project of this scale, prior to a decision to build, is telling.
Constructing the line will incur huge carbon emissions, and up to two million cubic metres of waste would arise from tunnel excavation, some through aquifers and river systems still not fully understood, like the Misbourne. The project, as presently conceived, might just be carbon neutral. Estimates of flight and car use reductions that it would generate are optimistic, to say the least. The Transport Studies Unit at Oxford has pointed out that total journey time, and energy use (factoring in getting to and from the stations in the first place), is more important to survey than the fabled ’travel time reduction’ that is the main selling point. Heavy car use is anticipated to reach the very few stations.
As to the route; the ‘preferred’ one through the Chilterns affects an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Metropolitan Green Belt, and a range of other sites. Even if extensive tunnelling takes place, which is currently only programmed for the rich bits to the immediate west of London, there will still be new cuttings, noise, loss of ancient woodland, and closure of tracks and lanes (over a hundred).Train noise demonstrations organised by the DfT in their recent Roadshows were unconvincing and thousands of homes will experience serious noise, some without compensation. There are churches only 200 metres from the proposed route, and a colony of endangered Bechstein bats. A to B readers would probably oppose new motorway construction; why should their views of this line, and its 250mph trains, be any different? HS2 is really a motorway to London, without the lorries, and with fewer exits.
Planning; The project is not the subject of a full Planning Inquiry as other mega-projects like Heathrow T5 have been. The only chance to comment on the proposal was through the limited means of written ‘public consultation’ by 29th July, with no other promises of consultation. The public still want to know and comment on alternatives to the whole scheme. The government seems to have its mind made up already.
Capacity; As Christian Wolmar says, ‘To oppose HS2 is not to be anti-rail’. We need more north-south train seats, for sure. But the ‘capacity increases’ from HS2 will only benefit those close enough to the stations, or able to access them easily (probably by car).A 250mph train requires straight tracks. Reduce the speed a bit and the line could circumvent localities that the HS2 documents state will be ‘unavoidably’ affected. In fact, you could put a slower, bendy line along many parts of the existing network, as previous reviews have suggested. Any loss of services on existing lines will be a capacity reduction for those train users, unless they live in London or Birmingham. The bike carriage situation is unclear – HS2 has not been touted as a bike friendly project.
The Politics; While the project is endorsed by the Labour Party (which announced it in March 2010), it has become a cornerstone of Coalition policy. Millions along the route and further afield now oppose it, including many who vote Conservative. Currently the cycling Mayor of London and the Greens are opposed to the current plan, as are transport gurus Christian Wolmar and John Whitelegg. Whitelegg said in February 2011:
‘The proposed HS2 trains would burn 50% more energy mile-for-mile than the Eurostar.HS2 would produce more than twice the emissions of an intercity train. HS2 is a ‘rich person’s railway’ – the business case assumes that a third of passengers will be on incomes of £70,000 or more.’
The project may not actually be the ‘White Elephant’ that protesters have dubbed it, but it certainly involves a leap of faith to support its aims and objectives. Sustainable transport policy should involve slower stopping trains, better use of existing cuttings and lines, affordable and regulated fares, and be based on whole-journey analysis. It should not involve the construction of a thundering non-stopper, scything through the British countryside, towns and cities. A to B appears to support the scheme (A to B 83, 84), but should reconsider its endorsement.