Green and net-zero

HS2 – investing in capacity, not just speed

The Government’s recent green light for HS2 has raised passions on all sides. Opponents worry about environmental damage while proponents say this can be minimised and set in a context of very long-term economic and social gains. Who is right Jon Herbert asks?

( Text content written by Jon Herbert for Croner-i Environment Inform )

If and when it finally and fully goes ahead, HS2 will become one of the UK’s largest ever infrastructure projects. It has been promoted as a way of “levelling up” Britain’s unbalanced industrial landscape by connecting vital skill bases and the neglected potential of isolated northern cities.

Unsurprisingly, the project with a current price tag of circa £106 billion has strong support from businesses as both supply chain members and future users, plus local authorities in the North.

However, there is also a view in both the North and South that the huge cost — which may appear modest against Treasury spending to limit coronavirus damage — should go towards improving existing tracks and local services.

The complexity of the argument makes it difficult to get a clear view of the pros and cons involved.

Cases for and against

One key concern for opponents is the negative impact of HS2 on a natural environment already under threat from climate change and pollution. This is buoyed up by a 27 February 2020 Court of Appeal ruling that developing a third Heathrow runway is illegal because it meets the 2008 Climate Change Act but not the UK’s June 2019 decision to bring all greenhouse gas emissions down to net zero by 2050.

In March, broadcaster and naturalist Chris Packham launched a crowdfunded challenge to HS2 on similar grounds, arguing that HS2 Ltd and the recent Oakervee Review (mentioned later) fail to show that the project meets net zero targets.

Supporters say environmental impacts will be managed to a minimum and must be balanced against economic and social benefits extending into the twenty-third century.


However, supporters also argue that the headline emphasis on speed is misleading. Instead, the focus should be on HS2’s increased carrying capacity.

At present, West Coast rail movements in England are limited to the existing track system. This means that high-speed inter-regional expresses, local multi-station-stop services and slow freight traffic all run at different speeds on the same lines. The result is delays and inefficient safety spacing between types of train.

The HS2 rationale is to take high-speed traffic off existing tracks, which can then be dedicated to improved services for local communities and business. At the same time, HS2’s new high-speed capacity is designed to revolutionise and reconnect the UK’s modern national industrial base.

Gareth Dennis is an often quoted engineer and transport specialist. At he explains how building HS2 rather reopening old railway lines will benefit not only the West Coast but also East Coast and Midlands rail services. The Department for Transport expects HS2 to triple capacity across the entire route system.

Good Northern news

The Government’s go-ahead for the North–South HS2 is of key importance to the North. So is a new East-West Transpennine route known variously as Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR), High Speed North, HS3 and Crossrail for the North. This will actually piggyback 80km of new HS2 rail.

Combining the two under the new banner of High Speed 3 strengthens the economic case for creating a new coast-to-coast freight route connecting the ports of Liverpool and Hull by way of both Manchester and Leeds. Upgraded connections will also bring in Sheffield, Doncaster and York, and then, via an upgraded East Coast main line, Newcastle upon Tyne.

The North’s industrial potential is often overlooked. Lancashire, for example, with British Aerospace and Rolls Royce,is home to the world’s fourth largest aerospace hub. The county’s automotive sector has an employment base rivalling the West Midlands, plus advanced and low-carbon manufacturing centres. It could also benefit from any government decision to rekindle an onshore wind sector.

However, the county’s limiting factor in terms of both UK and much-needed international trade is poor transport connections — which HS2 is expected to resolve.


However, green groups and many conservationists are highly critical of the project in terms of both carbon reduction and retaining and increasing biodiversity. The Government’s view is that HS2 will reduce demand for short-haul air travel and car journeys and take freight off the road. However, even with green electrification, its calculations suggest that carbon emissions could be greater than savings throughout HS2’s projected 120-year life when both construction and operation are taken into account.

The Guardian has looked at the question in-depth and concluded that HS2 will “not cut carbon emissions”. Friends of the Earth questions the opportunity costs of diverting funds away from other low-carbon transport strategies and describes HS2 as a “costly and damaging mistake which will threaten wildlife, destroy ancient woodlands and do nothing to reduce climate-wrecking pollution”.

There is also concern that HS2’s proposed new “ green corridor” — with 9km2 of new woodlands and 7 million trees and shrubs, plus 4km2 of extended wildlife habitat — will include “inappropriate mitigation” such as tree planting on species-rich habitats and wetlands.

HS2 plans to leave a carefully managed “balanced” footprint on the British countryside with new wildlife habitats ranging from badger setts to bat houses. It adds that, of more than 52,000 ancient English woodlands, 43 will be affected by the London to Crewe route but more than 80% of their total area will be left untouched. Yet there are still fears of ecological damage to wildlife refuges of international importance and Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

Carbon arguments

HS2 also explains that its long distance journeys will create low-carbon travel alternatives achieving emissions per passenger kilometre 7 times lower than for cars and 17 lower than domestic air travel.

It adds that car travel will fall by 1.2 million miles daily when HS2 is fully operational and calculates the project can achieve 8g of carbon emissions per passenger per km set against 67g from an equivalent car journey, or 170g by plane. It anticipates carbon savings from car travel of more than 40,000 tonnes annually, or circa 18 million litres of petrol.

Meanwhile, the independent Oakervee Review (mentioned above) released on 11 February 2020 concludes that HS2 construction could add carbon emissions “in the long run” but reduce other carbon intensive forms of transport. These include cutting domestic flights by some 11% as London to Edinburgh demand falls and climate change pushes people towards rail. It also stresses that HS2 must be part of a wider “integrated government strategy” that decarbonises the entire UK rail network to reach net zero.

Research by Greengauge 21 says carbon savings of 0.6 million tonnes over 60 years could be quadrupled “if the Government puts in place a wider package of policies to capture the full carbon benefit of HS2”, adding that this “comfortably offsets” 1.2 million tonnes of embedded carbon from construction.

A number of other more or less optimistic estimates can be used as evidence to support all sides of the argument.

When HS2 opens

The HS2 vision is for up to 14 400m-long trains an hour in each direction to carry up to 1100 passengers at speeds reaching 250mph. Phase one from London to Birmingham will open between 2028 and 2031. The second phase “V-shaped” split from Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds will follow in 2032/33.