12 Jan 2012

HS2: Good or Bad?

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Rail: the future for sustainable travel?

HS2 has been a difficult issue for advocates of green, sustainable, travel. And, in the week when the government has finally given the signal to begin the project, the strange alliances on both sides of the argument are a good illustration of how divisive this issue has become.

Usually, it would be assumed that environmental groups would support the idea of encouraging more people to travel by train, but concerns about damage to the countryside and wildlife along the route, combined with arguments about just how high its emissions will be, have convinced many environmentalists to campaign against the line.

So, we now have some of the most bizarre and unlikely bedfellows lined up together on both sides. For the pros we have most of the government and opposition, the devolved government in Scotland, the majority of business leaders, particularly in the north, some environmental and green groups and most railway lovers. At the other end of the platform, we have many Tory backbench MPs, local councils and protest groups, the Countryside Alliance, some environmentalists, powerful conservation groups like The Woodland Trust, a few railway buffs, notably Christian Wolmar, Inner London action groups, and of course, Lord Astor.

The arguments are many and complicated, but the most powerful one, as far as the government is concerned, is the need to improve infrastructure and, thereby, stimulate business. This, to those of us on the green side, would usually be considered to be a weary and predictable response that should, but does not, take any account of the environment that is about to be damaged.

Equally, it is too easy to dismiss the concerns of wealthy home and landowners in the Chilterns as nimbyism. Everyone, whether they live in a mansion in Buckinghamshire, or a council flat in Camden, would be devastated should their home be threatened by demolition. And, while it is true that if the proposed line had been drawn through some less attractive and prosperous areas of the country the wails of protest would be less influential and less vocal, it cannot be denied that the route will have huge human and environmental impact.

Despite this, the case for HS2 still outweighs the arguments against it.  We in Britain, are already a laughing stock as far as fast, efficient railways are concerned, in comparison with the rest of Western Europe and, although this investment in infrastructure should have been made years ago, it’s still better late than never.

The most effective argument for HS2 is to look at how ineffectual the alternatives are:

  • upgrading the West Coast Main Line (WCML), the most quoted alternative, would be totally ineffectual, indeed futile. Over the last 10 years or so, this line has been in almost perpetual reconstruction: new bridges, longer platforms and four lanes of track now run through much of the Midlands. In addition to Virgin, there is now a slower and cheaper service from Crewe to Euston, operated by London Midland. But, the early-morning crowded platforms at every station from Crewe southwards tell their own story. Equally, it is well-nigh impossible to find a seat out of Euston from late afternoon onwards. Travelling north to to Glasgow, credit is due to Virgin as the line is now immeasurably better (possibly also to do with the demise of RailTrack), although horrendously expensive. Time wise – three hours from Crewe and four from Birmingham – it compares well with alternative methods of travel, but trains are invariably crowded and packed with both passengers and luggage.
  • abandoning HS2 would not lead to more people walking, cycling and using other trains, but to yet more motorways – and more single-occupancy vehicles – and air travel; both of which are considerably less green than HS2
  • support for HS2 does not mean opposing the improvement of existing railways, or the reduction in fares, or the re-opening of old/new stations and lines, or the extension of bus routes and making cities and the countryside more walking/cycling friendly

Living near the route, I will be affected by its construction, but this part of the Midlands is already defaced by overcrowded motorways, under-used toll roads and noisy, polluting airports.  Unfortunately, there will be an environmental cost for HS2, but the alternatives would be far worse.

Now that HS2 has been approved, all of us who care about the environment should work together to try to minimise its damaging impact.  But, we should also celebrate a decision that shows rail is the mode of land travel for the future and continue to lobby for improved and user-friendly public transport (including trains equipped to carry bikes and more luggage) and re-claim our roads, lanes and streets for safer cycling and walking.

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