Mar 4 2011
The government has finally launched its long awaited consultation on the high speed rail link between London and Birmingham known as HS2. This is a brand new railway line that is designed to run at 250mph and the proposal has already caused consternation in the shires through which it would run on its first leg – from Euston to Birmingham.
The whole project is characterised by rhetoric about economic growth, reducing the north-south divide and making the nation more prosperous. This does not at all reflect the reality. In fact, it is an expensive, environmentally damaging, and badly thought through transport project.
The project relies on the notion that the time savings for high income passengers would translate into huge economic gains and, in some mysterious way, propagate prosperity and happiness along the viaducts, through the tunnels and along the swathe of concrete, overhead wires, access roads and electrical gear that would race though Buckinghamshire and Warwickshire.
Credibility levels are under more pressure still when it becomes clear that the monetary value of time savings amounts to such a big number because of the assumption that the time spent on these trains is non-productive time. In the parallel universe of high speed rail, no one reads documents or uses lap tops and other technology in order to get on with work. Forecasts of the future demand for business travel take no account of the spread of video-conferencing and other technologies that substitute electronic communication for physical travel.
It is the consultation itself that really gives the game away. The most important things are not consulted on. The scale of the environmental damage caused by HS2 is the result of a design that specifies a 250mph running speed. Faster running requires more engineering and straighter lines than a lower design speed. We are not being consulted on the route itself, although there are other options that could be considered. We are not being consulted on really basic options; for example, if we want to create jobs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, then how does a complete electrification of the railways system stack up by comparison?
Supporters of HS2 have linked the project to a low carbon transport future and then revealed its true nature, which is simply about encouraging more long distance travel and higher carbon emissions. HS2 sits alongside an assumption that long distance car travel will increase by 44% by 2033 and air travel by 178% by the same year. The new line will produce an 8% shift away from air and the same away from roads. And while the shift could be greater once the Scottish phase is taken into account, this is just not good enough for such an expensive project – and does not deliver objectives on climate change or sustainable development.
The starting point for any large transport investment is how it sits within a vision of what kind of society and economy we are trying to shape. The Green Party is very clear on this: we support the principle of high speed rail, but will only support specific projects if they pass a simple test. High speed rail projects must be part of a convincing and robust carbon reduction strategy capable of producing significant reductions in domestic air travel and long distance car travel – and designed in a way that demonstrably minimises environmental damage.
We want strong city regions with highly integrated transport systems as good as Zurich or Basle or Frankfurt, stretching for at least 50km around all our major cities. We want excellent inter-city links between places like Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle and Exeter, Bristol, Birmingham. We want excellent rural public transport so that there is a real choice between the car and its alternatives. We want a transport system driven by social justice and fairness, providing high quality choices to all income groups and all localities. HS2 is a rich person’s railway with an assumption that 30% of its passengers will earn more than £70,000 a year and, as such, seems to me to be a socially regressive project.
Finally, there should be greater respect for the intelligence and motivation of all those opposing this new line. Labelling the citizens of Warwickshire and Buckinghamshire as “Nimbys” and failing to engage with discussions about how we improve the lives of all citizens without trashing precious countryside is offensive and unworthy of an elected government.