Friday, March 04, 2011

Guest Post: High Speed Rail

This is a guest post from my friend Cathryn Symons who blogs at Camden Kiwi After the debate in Cardiff on High Speed Rail I thought it would be good to get someone who knows about it to explain the problems with HSR2. (See also Caroline Lucas in the Guardian)

High Speed Rail poses a dilemma for many Greens. We are in favour of public transport, but also have concerns with the proliferation of long-distance commuting because of the impact it can have on towns and communities which become dormitory places for the mighty metropolis.

We know that rail is one of the most cost-effective and environmentally friendly modes of transport, both for people and for freight, but are also concerned at the environmental damage and carbon emissions caused by large construction projects and aware that rail can be a major energy user. Many Greens are also concerned about the impact of high speed rail on local people and their environment.

The recent government proposals to build a high speed rail link from London to the North, starting with a dedicated London-Birmingham line called HS2, have led to strong debate in the party. It is a debate which was finally resolved in Cardiff last weekend, when conference agreed the Green Party does not support the HS2 project as it stands, and will only support high speed rail when it is clearly shown to be part of an overall policy which reduces demand for travel, CO2 emissions and energy use.

So far, much of the opposition to HS2 has come from local groups who are, quite rightly, concerned about local impacts. HS2 would pass through areas of outstanding natural beauty and disrupt many attractive areas in the Chilterns. In my local area of Camden, there is concern about the loss of social housing as Euston station is expanded, and the effect of tunnelling under Primrose Hill. These are issues which could be sorted out if the project's backers wished to do so - routes can be changed, social housing replaced and even tunnelling work managed to be less disruptive. The fundamental issues of ever increasing demand for travel, high energy use and CO2 emissions are far harder to deal with.

The HS2 proposal will be, at best, neutral in terms of carbon emissions. The first London-Birmingham leg will not be available until 2026 by which time we will need to have severely reduced emissions, and for a major project like this to not contribute at all seems unreasonable. In fact, the project's backers have barely even tried to establish the carbon budget for the project.

Perhaps the most severe impact of HS2 comes from its dependence on enormous levels of growth in domestic travel over the coming years. As with building roads, there seems to be a 'predict and provide' approach, which simply indulges unnecessary and expensive travel. Birmingham will become part of the London commuter belt, in the way that Peterborough, Cambridge, Milton Keynes and Brighton already are. It is hard to see where that kind of growth will stop, or what use it is. Although claims are made that the line will reduce the North-South divide, and help to regenerate the North, there is no evidence given for this.

HS2 is not a sustainable project. It is possible that, in this small, densely populated country of ours, high speed rail will never really be sustainable. The onus should be on those promoting these projects to show that they benefit society and the environment.

So far, most of the resistance to HS2 has been local and risks being labelled 'nimbyism' and so dismissed out of hand. But there are wider issues here, which the Green Party has now acknowledged. Campaigning against this damaging, wasteful project needs to embrace both these wider environmental and social issues and the concerns of the Chilterns householder who finds a railway line planned for her living room.


Penny Gaines said...

Very good article. Can't find an email for you - could we reproduce this on the <a href="></a> website? My email

Essex Womble said...

Should add that opposition to HS2 is one of the options for the next 38 degree e-petition.


By the time the electrified line is built from Reading to Cardiff we'll have lost 12 gigwatts of electricity generation.

Don't hold your breath - Hitachi Trains will hopefully have a battery powered version by the time this is completed.

Cathryn said...

@PennyGaines - I'm okay with that if Jim is.

Penny Gaines said...

Thanks Cathryn and Jim - I've posted it today at

Anonymous said...


As libraries padlock their hallowed doors
And swimming pools close to further the cause
The plan for expenditure on this new scheme
Will cost us billions to fulfil the dream

Crumbling schools with no hope of repair
Hospital wards facing closure – despair!
Careers of policemen cut short in their prime
To enable the affluent to cut journey time.

The service of soldiers curtailed by email
And naval equipment offered for sale
Air and sea rescue will soon disappear
As the vision of High Speed Rail looms very near

The plan for the track cuts a swathe through the land
Devastating the countryside on either hand
Destruction of habitat – fauna and flora
Replaced by a bullet with quicksilver aura.

Speed is the essence no matter the cost
Hedgerows and trees irretrievably lost.
What will be gained by the grandiose plan?
A huge national deficit, a millstone for man.

Paddy Spears
March 2011

Jim Jepps said...

Thanks Paddy, I believe that's the first poetic comment on this blog I've ever had!