HS2: just another infrastructure project?

Today’s Times carries a story that CPRE is reconsidering its support for high speed rail.  This is true, though if we do change our line it will be a board decision.

CPRE’s conditional support for HS2 has been unpopular with many members – see some of the comments on my previous two blogs on the subject – but that is not why we are having second thoughts.  The reason is that it is increasingly hard to see HS2 as any sort of green project.  I continue to think that HS2’s long-term benefits to the countryside and the wider environment could outweigh the harm it will inevitably cause, but it is doubtful whether the Government believes this, or cares.    

CPRE nationally has supported a new north-south high speed lines for a number of reasons.  We were attracted to the idea that it could, in George Osborne’s words, ‘redraw the economic geography’ of the country, connecting northern and midlands cities and providing an alternative to over-development in the wider south east.  We hoped that HS2 would an exemplar – with outstanding design, beautiful viaducts, and plenty of tunnelling to avoid the destruction of homes or excessive damage to beautiful countryside.

And we saw it as an environmental project, as it was billed from the start.  The Government promised to make rail the long distance travel mode of choice.  HS2 was an alternative to new roads and runways, and had the potential to revive rural railways by relieving pressure on existing lines.  It would also, to quote Theresa Villiers as Shadow Transport Secretary, “give a vitally important boost to our efforts to protect future generations from catastrophic climate change”.  (That was 2008 – the last time senior politicians spoke about ‘catastrophic climate change at a Conservative Party Conference?).

We have been disappointed on many things.  HS2 still has the potential to aid regeneration, but parkway stations in the Green Belt outside Birmingham and Manchester certainly don’t help.  And apparent support for new towns in Kent and Buckinghamshire hardly suggest a strong will to redraw the country’s economic geography.  As for design and mitigation, we have heard little progress on the design panel announced by Patrick McLoughlin in his CPRE lecture in November 2012.  And the increasing focus on building the cheapest railway possible (a triumph of the anti-HS2 campaigners, though one they may end up regretting) reduces the chance of more tunnelling and increases the likelihood that we will see ‘Tesco Value Viaducts’ rather than things of beauty to be celebrated in years to come.

But above all, HS2 is no longer fits into a green narrative.  The Government (or the Conservative part of it) seems increasingly committed to a third runway at Heathrow and is launching the biggest road-building programme since the 1970s.  So it seems we are to have HS2 and new roads and runways.  That was never part of the deal.  It is not clear what this does for the business case for HS2 – there are only so many passengers – but it blows a hole in the environmental case.

I still hope the Government can make a compelling case for HS2.  But that will mean:

  • controlling its enthusiasm for new roads and runways;
  • committing to exemplary design for a railway that will shape parts of England’s countryside for generations;
  • being clear about its role in regenerating the north and relieving pressure on the south.

I will be speaking at the Royal Town Planning Institute’s ‘great debate’ on HS2 tomorrow evening.  I look forward to an interesting discussion.

8 Responses to “HS2: just another infrastructure project?”

  1. 1 Andrew Gibbs January 22, 2014 at 10:50 am

    It is good to see that the CPRE is starting to consider the reality of HS2 rather than the dream. Hopefully the board will also take account of realities when considering the ‘compelling case that needs to be made’:
    – Roads and runway decisions will always be made independently of HS2, as HS2 makes so little difference to the usage of the other transport modes. They will be affected by government policy and taxation, fuel cost, non-travel alternatives, etc and not by a fast railway to London.
    – You can design the best looking railway in the world but if that is then plonked through the middle of ancient woods and pristine farming land then that is not the best result for our countryside. It should not be built, but if it is then it should use existing transport corridors already blighted by motorways etc – already the message has shifted to ‘capacity’, so why the insistence of a 400 kph straight line?
    – And pretty much going back to the first point – a single fast railway to London will (as academics agree) primarily act to move more growth to London and not the other way around. So if you want to re-balance the economy you need to take on activities that might achieve that not ones that will make things worse!
    I feel also you are being disingenuous with blaming anti-HS2 protestors for attempts to design HS2 on the cheap. Like many major infrastructure projects HS2 has been sold with promises of good cost-benefit numbers and of excellent mitigation and best possible construction goals. As this dream shifts towards reality (and all anti-HS2 protestors are doing is bringing the obvious truths into the open) and the true costs (larger) and the true benefits (smaller) appear it is inevitably the case that the promoters look to save money wherever they can – so noise barriers get binned, replanting and landscaping gets cut back, etc.
    HS2 remains bad value for the country, and even worse for the countryside. It remains a ‘solution’ looking for problems to solve, and despite jumping around between various justifications is failing to find any that it can actually convince anyone that it helps. So good luck with your further deliberations as hopefully it is not too late for the national CPRE to line up with regional groups in challenging the government on HS2.

  2. 2 mopdenson January 22, 2014 at 1:12 pm

    The creation of a new major transport corridor, HS2, will lead to the urbanisation of the heart of our currently protected Chilterns AONB.

    Government cannot provide empirical evidence to support their claims that HS2 alone will regenerate areas and close the North South divide. When looking at HS1 as a marker, regeneration from HSR has not been transformational for areas outside London and has forced many passengers, through price & station locations, back into buses and cars. The taxpayer will continue to subsidise related debts for years to come as passenger numbers for HS1 were lower than forecast.

    Money spent on transport infrastructure such as HS2 is money not spent on protecting our environment. New infrastructure projects must be designed so they can be built more symbiotically with nature, and as part of an overall transport strategy. HS2 is silo planning and will be built at the expense of our environment.

    Government cutting costs on HS2 is not the fault of campaigners against HS2. If we can’t afford proper environmental protection then we can’t afford HS2.

    HS2 is all fur coat and no knickers; perhaps CPRE is naive not to see it’s a political project, not a green one.

  3. 3 Barnetian January 22, 2014 at 3:06 pm

    Money spent on HS2 provides an economic payback for the next hundred years – to spend on other things! It also frees up space on existing lines for more trains at intermediate stations and for freight.

    HS2 phase one will be full of long-distance services from day one. If, as expected, the capacity is not enough, a second line to London, from Nottingham via Leicester, will probably follow.

    Some city-centre stations are just not financially practical. But by all means try and stop development around Birmingham Interchange station, to avoid filling the ‘Meriden Gap’, and around Toton and Meadowhall.

    Manchester Airport seems a lost cause, with the PM attracting huge Chinese investment there.

  4. 4 Jo Mason January 22, 2014 at 3:19 pm

    It has been clear to many for a very long time that HS2 was nevet going to deliver, whether that be environmentally or economically, and it is very welcome that the higher echelons of CPRE are finally getting there.
    HS2 should be scrapped now before another penny is wasted. Go back to the drawing boatd and start from first principles to design a fully integrated, genuinely greeen and truely national transport infrastructure thatdoesnt destroy our precious and dwindling countryside.The hybrid bill contains powers that would spell the end for our green and pleasant land and should be resisted by all those who value the countryside, and particularly those who purport to protect.
    it is time for CPRR to give a resounding NO to HS2

  5. 5 Andy C January 22, 2014 at 4:45 pm

    The very essence of all that is a danger to protecting rural england is encapsulated by HS2. If they are allowed to develop in the Chilterns AONB, then no protected place in the UK is safe. Time and again a succession of MPs have sworn under oath to uphold the constitution of the UK which is enveloped by Staute. We may not like many of these Statutes in terms of what they say or how they affect us. For instance, when the Government decide to waste £50bn of taxpayers money on a rail scheme that is 4.5 times more polluting that they told us in 2011 and will take 60 years to break even on CO2 emissions and will jeopardise our Carbon targets we swore to cut under the Kyoto Treaty and will pollute our water supplies and destroy our ancient woodlands and create flooding, then at this point I consider not paying my tax, yet Im obligated, by statute, no matter how much I dislike it!

    The fact is the AONB is protected by Statute in 1949, 2000 and incredibly in 2008 and 2011 – yet we did not know that despite the acts of 1949 and 2000 were enacted to protect these great lungs of the UK, the 2008 and 2011 acts were drafted to undermine them! We agreed to “Conserve and Enhance” these great and sacred sanctuaries of nature, we enshrined them in statute and MPs swore an oath to this effect. We cannot allow MPs or anyone else with a vested interest to desecrate that which is sacred to the nation!

    The Campaign to Protect Rural England – you could not have a more apt title. Protect, Rural and England, there cannot be 3 more fitting words that describes the type of organisation that the AONB so desperately needs in this, its most desperate hour!

    This isnt about credibility, this isnt about accusations that people will throw at you if you take no action, this is about something far more simple. Look out your window, that grass, those trees, those birds, that wildlife, who will speak for them to protect and conserve them? We thought it was you, we still hope it is!

  6. 6 Ed Wintergreen January 22, 2014 at 6:30 pm

    The Tesco Value Viaduct point is an excellent one. There is no man-made object more sympathetic to the countryside than a good viaduct, as JMW Turner and Harry Potter fans alike will attest. It would be a crying shame if HS2 doesn’t add a few great ones to the landscape.

    Better surely to cut the superfluous tunnels along the route that will spoil the view for most of the journey. Many of which are entirely unnecessary for protection of the countryside and have been added at great cost simply to appease anti-HS2 campaigners, who then have the nerve to complain about rising costs!

    The unspoken assumption behind the tunnels (and some of the comments above) is that a train line is a blight on the countryside in the same way as a motorway is. I live near a motorway and work very near the West Coast main line and they could not be more different. The visual impact of the railway line is comparable to a single carriageway country road, and not even to that in terms of noise. The impact of HS2 will be a fraction of say, the M40, which scythes through the Chilterns with hardly any concern for the surrounding environment. I would be nice if the anti-HS2 campaign would admit this, but of course that is highly unlikely. I’m glad the CPRE takes a nuanced view and hope you continue to do so.


  7. 7 richie40 January 22, 2014 at 9:15 pm

    The WCML is an inefficient mixed traffic railway with high-speed, commuter and freight trains sharing 4 tracks. Building 2 new tracks so that the 3 types of train can each have there own pair of tracks is sensible.

    However, the HS2 cost of building the new tracks as a very straight high speed line of £42.5bn (including contingency, excluding trains) is very expensive. As an alternative a pair of new lines for freight trains could be built for around 10% of this cost using lines closed by BR between 1950 & 1990.

    It may not be much fun if you live next to a closed line that gets re-opened, but the environmental impact will be a lot less than HS2

  1. 1 HS2 and ‘Tesco value’ viaducts | beleben Trackback on January 22, 2014 at 11:40 am

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