In my previous articles I outlined the arguments for HS2, and some of the business arguments against it. There has been much opposition to HS2 on environmental grounds. In the final article of the series examining the HS2 project, I assess these claims and attempt to put them in context.
The question of ancient woodland
Phases 1 (London–Birmingham) and 2a (Birmingham–Crewe) of HS2 directly affect 43 ancient woodlands and will result in the loss of 39 hectares of woodland for 155 miles of railway. No complete woodlands are being destroyed and new trees are being planted to replace those that will be removed. By way of comparison, 212,000 hectares of woodland were lost during World War 2, with forestry and agriculture since 1945 taking half of the remaining ancient woodland. Some 364,000 hectares still remain and HS2 impacts less than 0.01% of this.
The Woodland Trust is one environmental group making claims about HS2. Their campaign material includes alarmist wording such as how HS2 “destroys irreplaceable habitats such as ancient woodland”. Similarly the Wildlife Trust claims that HS2 will “affect 108 ancient woodlands”. This figure is arrived at by listing all the woodlands in a one-kilometre strip either side of the route of the line – regardless of whether the railway actually cuts through those sites or not.
Exaggerated claims of woodland destruction
It is true that construction of HS2 is causing the loss of some ancient woodlands. Strictly speaking these are ‘irreplaceable’, as ancient woodland cannot be directly replaced by newly planted trees. However, it is important to stress that the amount of ancient woodland being lost is extremely small and it’s also unfortunately true that some campaigners and organisations are making exaggerated claims about the damage caused. The construction of HS2 involves transplanting and preserving topsoil from woodland areas that will regrettably be removed, but this will preserve much of the ecosystem of those areas.
Contrast this also with the environmental impact of the government’s planned road building programme. The proposed Lower Thames Crossing motorway, at just 15 miles long, affects 45 hectares of ancient woodland. Using the Woodland Trust’s own figures, this will be 37 times more damaging per mile than HS2. One can argue of course that no amount of damage to ancient woodland is ‘acceptable’, but this would prevent any potentially beneficial infrastructure projects from ever being built. It seems fair to suggest that planting new trees and preserving topsoil is a good compromise. A sense of perspective is required.
Impact of HS2 on the environment
The route of HS2 has been carefully designed to minimise its environmental impact. However, whilst ancient woodlands cover only 2% of UK land, they tend to be scattered about and are difficult to avoid without making the route of HS2 more curved. This would increase the lifetime carbon emissions for the route (since more curves means more braking and acceleration, and track maintenance) and rob the line of its speed and hence capacity. This is important for competing against air travel which will otherwise become a more attractive option, as with the 2022 Avanti West Coast train chaos.
The other alternative – upgrading existing lines – would cause the loss of even more ancient woodland and would create more carbon emissions together with the demolition of much more property. By way of example, try following the Coventry-Birmingham New Street-Wolverhampton rail corridor from the air using an online mapping service. Coventry and Birmingham New Street stations are in cuttings on cramped sites. The amount of disruption to widen this rail corridor would be significant – and doing so does not solve the rail capacity problems that HS2 does, as described in the first article of this series.
The rapid regeneration of brownfield sites
It’s also surprising how quickly nature can recolonise a brownfield site after it has been abandoned. Take for example Calvert Jubilee in Buckinghamshire, which has been the subject of some concern by environmental campaigners.
The sailing club that now uses part of the site has a history there. The area was a brickworks which opened in 1900 but the last of the worked-out clay pits at Calvert was lined, flooded with water and reopened as the current nature reserve on 20 March 1978. The brickworks itself finally closed in 1991 and the last buildings were demolished in 1995. Over 40 years, the site has been transformed into a thriving nature reserve and HS2 only passes through the very edge of the reserve in a deep cutting which will be constructed with near-vertical walls in order to minimise land take. This is shown more clearly on the map image below.
The environmental benefits of HS2
Refinements to HS2 design and construction have allowed further environmental benefits to be reaped. The HS2 2021–24 corporate plan shows that work on one of the 3.4km long Colne Valley viaducts on the route began with test piles being sunk. Following assessment of the geological and structural data the remaining piles can be sunk 10–15% less deep – saving time, money and carbon emissions. Another major viaduct on the route has been redesigned to halve the carbon emissions of its construction.
The major HS2 station at Old Oak Common in West London has added 3,000 square metres of solar panels which, taken with other innovations in design and construction, will cut the station’s carbon footprint by more than 144,000 tonnes across the 120-year design life, compared to the original specification. Refinements to the Birmingham Curzon Street terminus will cut carbon emissions by over half over a similar timescale.
Likewise, proposals to extend the Bromford tunnel near Birmingham by 1.4 miles will reduce the impact on a nearby nature reserve and take lorries off Birmingham city centre roads. Revisions to the route of HS2 in the Kenilworth area mean Canley Brook will only need to be diverted by 80m as opposed to 700m, preserving the habitats of otters and bats.
The cost of doing nothing
It is perhaps understandable that campaigners are concerned about the impact of HS2 on the environment. But such campaigners need to avoid making or repeating exaggerated and disproven claims about the level of environmental impact HS2 construction will have.
In the first article in this series I discussed how transport, and road transport in particular, was the largest single source of carbon emissions. Some accuse HS2 of ‘greenwashing’ but if we don’t do something to create a modal shift from road to rail for both passengers and freight, then the effects of climate change on habitats of all kinds will be far greater.
We have to do something to tackle the climate emergency whilst retaining the natural desire for humans to travel and socialise, and an electrified railway is the least destructive and impactful way of achieving this. While not wanting to dismiss out of hand the impact HS2 will have on the environment, I do want to show that it’s the least damaging solution to a very serious problem.
The right-wing think tanks that oppose HS2
Curiously, much of the opposition to HS2 – and indeed rail in general – originates from right-wing libertarian think tanks such as the Cato Institute, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) and the Taxpayers Alliance (TPA). These organisations typically repeat climate change denialism and fossil fuel industry lobbyist talking points and have received substantial funding from similar US bodies.
The TPA and the IEA are both based in one office at 55 Tufton Street London and masquerade as legitimate educational charities. This masquerade was rejected by UK broadcast regulator Ofcom after the IEA complained to them, finding that comments made by LBC radio host James O’Brien that the IEA was a “lobby group” and “not actors of good faith” were justified.
The Cato Institute shares many of the IEA and TPA’s values and was founded by the Koch Brothers in 1977. The Koch Brothers used their oil industry wealth to lobby hard to influence US (and by extension global) policy to undermine tackling climate change and opposing public transport projects including high speed rail. They also heavily fund right wing political campaigns including US Republican candidates’ election campaigns.
The IEA has taken over the activities of the Transport Watch organisation following the death of its founder and apparent previous sole proprietor Paul Withrington in January 2021. Withrington was a retired road planner who believed all the UK’s railways should be converted to roads, but who never addressed the important questions of finance, maths or physics. The IEA website contains a glowing obituary to Withrington. The IEA’s ‘head of transport’ Richard Wellings does not appear to have actually held any frontline transport position, but nevertheless now seems to be the sole columnist for Transport Watch. Green campaigners should be careful about accidentally siding with such people.
Lessons from history
It’s worth remembering the opposition to HS1 (Channel Tunnel Rail Link) opened in stages between 2003 and 2007: many arguments are strikingly similar. Local objections resulted in more of HS1 being built in tunnels and both sides of the debate fought their positions strongly. Fears of noise blight, disruption during the construction phase and damage to the Kent Downs, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, were expressed. Yet some involved in the protest groups of the time have now acknowledged that their worst concerns were ultimately unfounded. As one member of a pressure group noted when interviewed by the Financial Times in 2012:
“All the government has to do is bring some of [the objectors to HS2] down to Kent and say, ‘Look, these people were up in arms over high-speed rail. Now no one bothers talking about the line’.”
“The valley is gone, and the Gods with it; and now, every fool in Buxton can be in Bakewell in half an hour, and every fool in Bakewell at Buxton; which you think a lucrative process of exchange – you Fools everywhere.”
The railway closed in 1968 after a brief ‘second wind’ of carrying most Manchester to London traffic whilst the present-day main line via Stoke and Rugby was electrified and upgraded – 50 years later this same stretch of line is once again at capacity and needs extensive modernisation in the form of relief by HS2. Yet the viaduct remains, regarded as a visual focal point which enhances the valley rather than detracting from it. Its associated tunnels through the hills were renovated and opened to walkers in 2011. Who knows what future generations will make of the impact of the engineering structures on HS2?