Britain’s new high-speed rail routes will be faster. There is debate as to whether they will prove greener. A long planning and construction programme means plenty of time to argue about whether the colossal infrastructure programme will make the UK richer or poorer overall. Jon Herbert looks at key issues.


We do things very well and very slowly. The UK is once again facing up to major transport infrastructure projects that will take far longer to implement than similar projects elsewhere in the world.

We also debate the pros and cons for much longer than other countries. In the case of High Speed 2 (HS2), years of arguments lie ahead that will try to decide whether linking up Britain with rail routes that shorten London to Manchester/Leeds travel times by one hour will boost the economy, equip the UK with a competitive transport network fit for the 21st century, raise or cut carbon emissions, defile landscapes, communities and heritage, damage biodiversity and be justified in temporarily or permanently laying claim to an awful lot of land.

Early in 2013, the Government released the provisional HS2 route, which will be completed in two phases. The 140-mile phase one from London to Birmingham should see trains running by 2024. Phase two will put the balance of 330 miles in place to Leeds and Manchester by 2032 or 2033. Slow speed ahead is the result of politics, finance and a vociferous democracy.

The environmental arguments are on three levels: the impact of construction; the impact of long-term operations; and how traveller rail, road and flight patterns will respond.

Meanwhile, present and future governments have to persuade local residents, businesses and landowners that intrusive building work, followed by the swift swoosh of passing trains, is compatible with upsetting newts, disturbing endangered bat colonies, reburying thousands of disinterred corpses and demolishing some 400 homes. Noise, visual impact and amenity costs, along with surface and groundwater effects, are also key considerations.

More than one government might be involved, because a hybrid Bill rather than public Bill will have to be put in place; this can be passed from one Parliament to the next. Meanwhile, opposition groups are gathering strength along the proposed routes.

On track

It took four years to complete the public inquiry for Heathrow Terminal 5. By 2015, China, in comparison, will have extended the longest high-speed rail route in the world from 4200 miles in 2011 to 11,000 miles. However, public consultation is not a hallmark of the Chinese planning system.

Meanwhile, there are many aspects of HS2 to discuss. To begin with, the land areas needed for construction access, earthworks and storage are much larger than the area that will finally be occupied by the finished railway. They still need to be defined.

Ironically, the success of campaigners in forcing more track to be enclosed in tunnels could add to the construction impact. In the Chilterns, long stretches will be hidden underground. In fact, some 22 miles of the 140 miles to Birmingham will be “tunnelled” — roughly 18% of the whole route.

Much of this will be so-called “green tunnelling”, with the track laid in a tube at the bottom of a deep cutting that is then covered by soil, grasses and trees.

Because level-crossings are incompatible with high-speed intercity rail routes, numerous bridges will have to be built, increasing the construction impact.

Devil in the detail

One other reason for delay in defining HS2’s full environmental impacts is the detailed engineering work needed to confirm the exact route of the new line, which has now been announced in principle. This is expected to be a long, complicated and expensive process. Property owners facing exceptional hardship will first be entitled to compensation. Only then will full consultation begin.

Long transport route projects cut through Parliamentary constituencies, of course. Local MPs may feel obliged to stand by the interests of their local voters. The Cheshire constituency of the Chancellor, George Osborne, will be bisected by HS2.

An Englishman’s home…

One of the largest impacts of the £32 billion HS2 route will take place at the very start of the journey as Euston Station is rebuilt and expanded. Camden will take a pounding from the demolition ball as hundreds of homes are knocked down. In addition, there will be extensive tunnelling through London.

There are also obstacles to be faced when the route breaks into open country. Britain’s rich history makes archaeological investigations essential. During the Channel Tunnel Rail Link work, some 40 excavations along 24 miles of route in Kent revealed a Neolithic long-house, a Romano-British villa and two Anglo-Saxon cemeteries. English Heritage is also advising on the potential impact to listed buildings, monuments and parks. MPs will have to take this into account before the final Bill goes to Parliament in 2018. Approval is scheduled for 2020. However, the Bill may fail to pass on its first reading.

Newt and bat power

Nature sites, sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs), nature reserves and ancient woodlands must also be taken into consideration.

The raw political power of newts was seen recently in a Cambridgeshire dual-carriageway project where tunnels costing £1 million were needed for some 30,000 amphibians to cross under the road safely. The habitat of the rare and strictly protected Bechstein bat in ancient Buckinghamshire woodlands could also be disturbed by HS2.

The safeguarding of the remains of an estimated 50,000 people must also be taken into account if the line cuts through old cemeteries in London and Birmingham. Strict exhumation rules apply even to old burials.

However, with the preparatory phase over, actual track-laying could be swift, with progress reaching roughly a mile a day. Laying sleepers and erecting overhead power lines can be carried out by an automated factory train.

Little carbon gains

While an investment on the scale of HS2 is justified on the grounds of strategically altering the transport habits of millions of people, taking thousands of trucks off the roads, radically relieving congestion and cutting overall energy use, the statistics of carbon saving are hotly debated.

According to High Speed Two Ltd, the company set up by the Government to oversee the project, HS2 will build on the best practice realised on HS1 in Kent, the Olympics and London’s east-west Crossrail project. It expects millions of air and road trips to move to rail and sees HS2 as a low-carbon project compatible with the Climate Change Act. Only in the most pessimistic circumstances could phase one “fail to deliver net carbon saving”, it says.

Were HS2 running today, the carbon emissions cost per trip would be 73% lower than car use and 76% lower than flying, it adds. It quotes the Greengauge 21 report in saying that HS2 could deliver per passenger journey emissions reductions of over 70%.

Numerically, phase one will offset more carbon emissions — 1.8 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (MtCO2e) — than its construction phase produces (1.2 MtCO2e). This will increase by a factor of four to more than 7 MtCO2e when the full network is operational.

HS2 also expects some 60,000 new jobs to be created in Midlands and northern cities, plus 10,000 more during construction and 1400 on operation and maintenance. The Government forecasts 100,000 new jobs nationwide.

However, not everyone is so optimistic. The Government’s own figures show that trains travelling at 220 miles per hour (mph) use 90% more energy — and thus carbon — than trains travelling at 125mph. This would mean that a passenger journey from London to Scotland would create circa 14kg of CO2 compared with 7kg for conventional rail travel and 26kg by air.

The one way, say critics, that a strategic high-speed rail investment could redeem itself would be if it used carbon-neutral renewable energy resources for electrification.

It is also expected that some 21,300 dwellings may experience a noticeable increase in noise, along with some 200 other buildings. An additional study expects tunnelling to cause long-term damage to chalk aquifers that support groundwater supplies in the Chilterns.

Last updated on 24/04/2013


First published by Croner-i on 24 April 2013



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