The government’s dream of high speed rail in Britain is scheduled to arrive in 2026, providing there’s no delays. It seems to be accepted almost unchallenged that this must be good for the environment – more people on the trains means less people in cars, right? But a growing chorus of critics claim it’s not as simple as that. In this post, I’m going to briefly look at the environmental case for the High Speed 2 (HS2) project, both for and against.
The project is initially due to connect London with Birmingham, cutting journey times to just 49 minutes (compared to 82 minutes on the current quickest train) . In its second phase the railway will split in the West Midlands, with one line terminating at Manchester, and the other going on to Nottingham, Sheffield and finally Leeds. That won’t open until at least 2033, but ministers are already talking up a third extension, bringing the network to Heathrow Airport.
In favour of faster
The ‘pro’ argument is common sense. The line is designed to take thousands of people off the roads per day, as well as relieving congestion on existing lines. Compared to other countries in Europe and the rest of the western world, Britain is undoubtedly behind the curve with high speed rail – Japan opened their first ‘bullet train’ in 1964. With the opening of our first high speed line between London and the Channel Tunnel in 2003, support has been growing for the rapid rail revolution to spread to Birmingham, Manchester, and maybe even Edinburgh.
The three big political parties have come out in favour, including David Cameron, who recently said that “many flights could be avoided if we had a network of high-speed rail in our country.” Flying from somewhere in Britain to somewhere else in Britain does seem like environmental madness, and government planners will be hoping that they can bring it to an end altogether. Who needs to fly from Manchester to London if the train takes just over an hour…?
Slower is superior
But it’s not just NIMBYs who are firmly against the ambitious plans. Green Party leader Caroline Lucas MP has said that claims about reducing CO2 emissions are “questionable to say the least”, while according to party spokesman Professor John Whitelegg “the proposed HS2 trains would burn 50% more energy mile-for-mile than the Eurostar… (and) produce more than twice the emissions of an intercity train.” Pressure group STOP HS2 claim it’ll be the most expensive railway in the world, costing an eye-watering £160 million per mile. That’s a lot of wind turbines.
Some, like the Campaign to Protect Rural England, think that adjustments to the plan can secure the best deal for the planet. They’ve called for lower speeds on the line, arguing that the straighter routes required by the fastest trains would “largely cut through open countryside”, rather than running alongside existing track and roads.
The environmental case for HS2 is not black and white, it’s one of compromise. Is it worth sending trains hurtling through the beautiful Chilterns to make a small cut to overall emissions? Or is cutting the countryside in two a price that’s too high to pay?