A very wrong-headed campaign has been set-up that claims that railways are bad for the environment.
Specifically, HS2 — which a coalition of campaign groups argue is going to destroy lots of woodland, promote air travel and dump tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.
It sounds very worrying, but it’s also wrong.
The biggest concern, or at least the one generating the biggest awareness is the damage to ancient woodland. Undeniably, digging up any woodland is generally bad, and ancient woodlands do tend to have a more diverse environment, but if the choice is between digging up some woodlands, or encouraging more people to drive cars — which is the lesser of two evils?
On average, motor cars generate 7 times more CO2 than a modern railway trip, and yet if action isn’t taken to improve the railways, which are straining to cope with demand, then we’re just going to push more people onto the motorways instead.
Not good for the environment at all.
But to build a new railway, sadly, yes, some damage needs to be done to permit the construction works.
Ideally, we have both a new railway and preserve the existing woods, but the patches of ancient woodland are scattered like confetti along the route, and unless you put the entire railway in a deep tunnel, the reality is that we’re faced with making choices, so which is the less bad choice to make?
In fact, there’s much to be said that is good from HS2 in terms of woodland impact. Firstly we should look at just how bad HS2 actually is.
The impact is vanishingly tiny. It’s expected that less than 0.01% of ancient woodland will be affected by Phase 1 of HS2 (London to Leeds/Manchester). Of course, that’s not good for the trees that are affected, but if you were to be really concerned about preserving ancient woodland, would you be attacking HS2, or, for example, the Lower Thames Crossing — a new motorway tunnel under the Thames which has a huge impact for its modest size.
From an environmental perspective, isn’t it a bit odd that a railway is getting more protests than a motorway extension?
Let’s be frank, all ancient woodlands were once brand new woodlands — and HS2’s plans include planting an awful lot more woodland as it is built. Not just as a replacement for what’s lost, but actually taking the opportunity to create whole new woods as well.
What’s being planted today will be the ancient woodland of the future. In the long term, there will be more ancient woodland than exists today, which is a huge benefit for the environment.
Long term thinking – what a good idea.
There is also a woodland fund that will support the cost of repairing ancient woodlands within 25 miles on either side of the railway.
To put that into context – 10% of England is currently classed as woodland, whereas the woodland fund for HS2 has a potential impact of around 7% of England. Obviously, not all of the potential land would be covered in trees by the fund as its replacement only, but it helps show the scale of the tree planting that’s being considered.
In a way, the woodland fund’s huge coverage reminds us that HS2 is not just an isolated railway between cities, but as I have previously shown, a project with UK-wide benefits as its main role is to increase capacity on the older railways by removing the capacity hogging intercity trains so that regional commuter services can be increased.
Improving commuter services helps to encourage motorists out of their cars onto the trains. Another win for the environment.
Another argument against HS2 being put forward from an environmental aspect is that it’ll be a huge carbon emitter during construction. Yes, undeniably that is the case — but the same would apply to say, building new homes or hospitals, and I don’t remember any protests against those on environmental grounds.
The goal that should be supported is how to minimize the impact, or even negate it entirely where possible. Modern technologies are a huge help, and building a new railway to modern standards will emit less CO2 than trying to bolt-on bits around the old Victorian network that we have at the moment.
Incidentally, a lot of the extra costs for HS2 are not due to the railway itself, but overly onerous government contractual conditions forcing the contractors to over-engineer the project and build much larger and deeper foundations than is conventionally required. If you want to reduce costs and also reduce the amount of CO2 emitted by all that excess concrete being used, then normalise the contracts
Another part of their argument is that HS2 is not compatible with other trains. Which is absurd. OK, if you want to push a HS2 train down a tube tunnel, then no, they are not compatible. But on the mainline, then most of the rail network will be compatible to some degree with HS2 trains.
HS2 trains will be able to switch to older tracks — in fact that’s an essential requirement from an engineering perspective — so the claim is baseless.
Obviously, a HS2 train won’t be as efficient when it runs on a regional railway. It’s rather like taking a journey on a motorway then switching to a small rural road. You can still get most vehicles down the rural road, just fewer of them and rather slower.
HS2 is the same.
While it’s good that we live in a country where the environmental lobby is listened to, and can rightly affect outcomes, a lot of the anti-HS2 argument is sadly misdirected. If your main goal is to reduce carbon emissions, which is a good thing to strive for, then of all the things to target as bad, HS2 is so far down the list as to barely register on them.
HS2 is the least bad way of getting people from one part of the country to the other. Unless we literally ban people from traveling, then it is important that the journey causes as little damage to the environment as possible.
Given the choice between electric powered trains, or petrol based road, or even worse, air travel, railways are by far and away the least damaging option for getting around the country.
People shouldn’t be criticizing HS2, but championing it as an exciting forward thinking environmentally enlightened project.
So, in 2020, lets have less of the bah humbug, and more of the celebrating a green transport project.