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Environment

HS2: The case for and against Britain’s biggest infrastructure project

Parts of the HS2 project have already been derailed, but does the project represent the future of transport in Britain, or is it time to scrap it altogether?

HS2 or not HS2 – that is the question still being asked about the biggest infrastructure project under way in Britain to connect London with the north (though not as far north as originally planned). We’re giving a platform to Susan Ryall of High-Speed Rail Group who wants the project to go full steam ahead, and Penny Gaines of Stop HS2 who’d rather see it hit the buffers.

Susan Ryall, director, High-Speed Rail Group

Improving the UK’s rail infrastructure through HS2 will transform the country: not just with reduced journey times and carbon emissions, but by spreading economic benefits, prosperity and opportunity around the UK. 

With the first leg of HS2 from London to Birmingham under construction, the next part of the line from the West Midlands to Crewe approved by Parliament, and legislation for extending the route from Crewe to Manchester now making its way through Parliament, we are moving ever closer to creating a new rail spine to connect communities across Britain. The challenge we now face is spreading awareness of the transformative advantages of high-speed rail, so that we can hand down a genuinely world-beating rail network to future generations.

On top of the environmental benefits, high-speed rail can help to provide the economic boost the country so badly needs

Susan Ryall

HS2 trains will be powered by zero-carbon energy, offering a cleaner alternative to car journeys and domestic flights. This commitment will play a key part in supporting aspirations to make the project net zero carbon from 2035. Significant investment has been made to ensure that HS2 is not just the biggest infrastructure project in Europe, but one of the greenest: with every mile of new track being constructed, HS2 is deploying everything from low-carbon concrete solutions to electrically powered cranes and diggers. People focus on the environmental consequences of construction, but fail to consider the bigger picture, like the shift from plane to train, cars taken off the roads and increased rail freight capacity reducing the need for lorries. HS1 is a great example – the environmental impacts are minimal and it has resulted in six million passengers from the UK choosing to travel internationally on low-carbon trains as opposed to taking carbon-intensive short-haul flights. Now, HS2 is looking to redefine what it means to be an environmentally responsible infrastructure project.

On top of the environmental benefits, high-speed rail can help to provide the economic boost the country so badly needs. Done right, investment in transport infrastructure can create more unified labour markets, improve access to local services, enhance firm-to-firm connectivity, and expand access to new and existing markets. HS2 is an economic programme as much as a transport one. 

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High-speed rail and the companies delivering it have sought to bring real value to people in communities across the line of the route. In July, HS2 Ltd launched a major social legacy programme which aimed to create jobs for those experiencing unemployment and homelessness, help young people to develop new STEM skills and access apprenticeships, and support community projects.

Rail must be considered as climate infrastructure. HS2 should be looked at as a major upgrade to the national rail network – and one that comes closest to offering zero-carbon-emission travel.

Penny Gaines, chair of Stop HS2

We formed Stop HS2 because we looked at the plans for HS2 and realised that they didn’t make sense. With Covid-19, the climate crisis and the cost-of-living crisis, the plans make even less sense. The climate crisis means we should reduce travel and act to preserve the natural world. HS2 does not do this.  

Early on, Stop HS2 said that video-conferencing and digital technologies will massively reduce the need for travel. This idea was dismissed by lots of people who want HS2, from government ministers downwards. But we knew that school kids were videoconferencing with schools abroad. We thought by the time they became employees themselves these kids would bring these habits into the workplace. They would not need to travel; they could just Zoom.

The pandemic shifted the timescale for these changes. Of course, some people have gone back to the office. And many people work from home for a day or more a week. But long-distance rail travel is still down. 

HS2 is destroying sensitive wildlife sites. HS2 Ltd and their contractors ignore guidance and have cut down woodlands in spring – they could have done it in autumn when trees are dormant

Penny Gaines

HS1 never got the expected passenger numbers, it is clear that HS2 won’t either. Meanwhile, HS2 is destroying sensitive wildlife sites. HS2 Ltd and their contractors ignore guidance and have cut down woodlands in spring – they could have done it in autumn when trees are dormant. HS2 Ltd and their contractors have broken agreements with groups like The Wildlife Trusts about when they should carry out work at wildlife sites. If HS2 Ltd wanted to, they could reduce the environmental damage. But they don’t.

HS2 Ltd says that it will be zero carbon after it opens. But this ignores the vast impact of building the railway. HS2 Ltd’s figures say that thanks to the carbon cost of its construction, it won’t be carbon neutral for at least 120 years after opening. Meanwhile, electric versions of cars, bikes, and even aeroplanes, are improving all the time.

The kind of transport most people want is the transport that gets them around locally and regionally. Many regional journeys are very slow. But the money for improvements is being swallowed up by HS2. Last year, the government published its Integrated Rail Plan. Most of the money is for HS2, with three-quarters (£72.3bn out of £96.4bn) allocated to the different phases of development.

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Some of that money could be used to electrify the rest of the rail network. And some of it could be used on small projects that would improve local and regional journeys. 

There are also questions over the HS2 plans. HS2 Ltd still hasn’t got a design for Euston. No one wants to pay for the station at Manchester Airport. The government has already cancelled the eastern leg to Leeds. They have dropped the Goldborne link near Manchester.  

It’s not too late for the new prime minister to cancel the whole of HS2.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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