A report has been published looking at the environmental impact of HS2, and with some caveats, is largely positive about how HS2 will improve the environment.
Commissioned by the High-Speed Rail Group, it doesn’t look at CO2, but at biodiversity in nature along the railway, before and after it’s built and what impacts the railway will have.
Let’s get the elephant out of the room, a report by an organisation called High-Speed Rail Group is never going to put out a report critical of high-speed rail, just as a group called, for example, StopHS2 is unlikely to ever put out a report that’s positive about HS2.
The facts sit somewhere between the two, and reports by both sides of the debate should be read to get a balanced approach to the debate.
While the detractors say that HS2 has a damaging effect on wildlife, the report suggests that once construction works are over, the benefits of the “green corridor” being built around HS2 turns the project in effect, into an environmental positive.
That’s just in terms of plant and wildlife alone.
The benefits from shifting road and air traffic to rail, and boosting commuter rail is a substantial CO2 and environmental benefit of its own.
One of the bigger benefits of a long railway is that it’s able to create links between pockets of wildlife otherwise isolated in bubbles of modern farmland. The ribbon of nature running alongside existing railways is one of the lesser appreciated aspects of the UK’s railway infrastructure.
It does, however, fit in with modern thinking about how to support biodiversity in the countryside, rather than trying to protect the bubbles as isolated entities, to join them up into larger bubbles, using the railway as the linking joints.
The report notes that Phase 1 of the HS2 project creates more of these green bridges than currently exist in the UK.
One of the reasons why HS2 can be better at creating these wildlife corridors is because of the thing that often makes anti-railway campaigners hate the railway — it’s wider than a normal railway.
Although the trackbed is only about a metre wider than a slower railway, because it needs to be straighter, that often involves more embankments and cuttings than a slower railway would need — and those wider slopes needed by HS2 aren’t used for farming, and so make for much wider nature corridors between isolated pockets of woodland.
It’s seemingly a paradox that high-speed rail can do more to improve biodiversity than a slower railway could achieve.
However, one of the controversial aspects of HS2 is ancient woodland. As has been previously shown, the practical impact is — to use a loaded term — negligible as a percentage of the total remaining. And as so much more woodland is being planted than destroyed, the long term effect is a net gain in woodland — some of which will, in turn, go on to become ancient itself over time.
HS2 could have reduced the ancient woodland impact further by being more curvey in design — that is fewer straight lines cutting into small woods scattered along the route — but curvey railways tend to be slower railways, and a slow railway cannot be upgraded later to a fast one, whereas woodland regrows.
Responding to the seemingly inevitable rise in temperatures, about a third of the newly planted trees are species that thrive in slightly warmer climates. A sensible mitigation to climate change, if a regrettable necessity.
The impact of climate change is also a reminder that railways are a far less damaging way of travel than cars and planes, and railways being fast is likely to be a key selling point for long-distance travel.
As the report notes, the UK is unlikely now to ever be a biodiversity hotspot, too much damage has been done in the past, but the opportunity caused by the construction of HS2 should be a trigger to improve wildlife along the route and help join up those isolated wildlife bubbles severed by the rise of modern life.
It does, however, highlight a disappointing situation, in that the anti-railway lobby is now so angry that environmental mitigations are being hidden from view or otherwise delayed to avoid too much local publicity. This causes a feedback loop of only the bad news being reported, so HS2 looks worse than it is, leading to more angry voices joining the protests.
Landowners and engineers are deferring environmental improvements to avoid becoming targets for the activists.
Regardless of your views about something, people living in fear is not a solution to anything.
That sort of thing has to stop.
The railway is being built – let’s work to maximise the environmental benefits that come from it.
The report is here.