Birmingham Friends of the Earth Response to Birmingham HS2 consultation

Trains can be a key part of any sustainable transport system. For High-Speed Rail the question of whether it is a “good” thing depends on the specific plans in question and the circumstances in which they are being pursued. So the question is not whether High-Speed rail is good or bad, but whether High-Speed rail fulfils the criteria for a low-carbon, sustainable form of transport that will regenerate the economy and be socially inclusive for everyone to use.

Firstly will it be low carbon, by getting people to leave other less carbon-intensive forms of transport?

The travel times would suggest it will, with London to Birmingham completed in about 40 minutes, faster than any other form of transport currently on offer. However, there are no flights between London and Birmingham, so it is not low carbon by increasing modal shift from air to train. Added to which, high-speed trains are much more energy intensive than normal services, so if people are going from conventional rail to high-speed, they are actually switching to a more carbon intensive form of transport. This is further exacerbated by the fact that the electricity to power the trains will probably not come from renewable sources.

We recognise that capacity on public transport, and especially the train network, is an issue that needs to be dealt with if we are to create a modal shift from car and plane to rail for long distance journeys. However, we are not convinced by the speed argument in the design of HS2.

Currently, rail is faster than car to get from Birmingham city centre to London Euston, but there are other factors determining whether people drive, primarily affordability, door-to-door journey times and the ease of connections over the whole route. High Speed Rail loses its edge when the overall journey is just as difficult (such as not having a comprehensive local rail network at the West Midlands end or a cross London journey with a network that is already rather full). Rail investment should be judged on these factors, not just the maximum speeds obtainable.

Moreover, for trains going further north to Manchester or Scotland, where there is an air market to take passengers from, trains would only be going at high-speed until the Midlands, before switching to conventional rail (at least initially). This is because the new trains would not tilt into curves, meaning they would actually run slower than the current tilting trains. If the route is extended beyond the Midlands (which is by no means certain), then one has the extra carbon cost of building a longer route against the greater carbon saving of achieving modal shift from an actual existing air service between Scotland, the North and London. In fact the Government’s own report into the route admitted it would only achieve carbon parity (taking into account energy costs of building and running the route) if it went all the way to Scotland.

Secondly, are there alternatives that would deliver more environmental benefits?

A further problem with the proposals in terms of delivering a low-carbon sustainable transport system, is that it risks taking money from local and regional transport projects. For example, how would thousands of people in South Birmingham feel if the re-opening of the line to Moseley and Kings Heath could no longer happen because of a lack of funds, while at the same time there was a new high speed line running between Birmingham and London?

While there is an argument that the new route will create capacity for more local trains on the existing network, this could also mean that certain areas, such as Coventry, are likely to lose their current fast and frequent connection to London. Added to which, there are probably cheaper ways to have more capacity for more trains, such as more tracks, or passing loops and better signalling. Also, extra carriages could be added and/or fewer first class places could be provided, which would make a significant difference on many trains.

If the High Speed Line goes ahead it must be part of an overall strategy to rapidly cut carbon emissions from transport. Policies must be put in place so the line attracts people and goods from cars, lorries and planes rather than generating new travel.

In any case, the Government’s immediate priority must be to develop a new strategy to cut emissions from shorter journeys which are the majority and responsible for most carbon emissions from transport. Lower carbon cars will help in the long term, but the Government must urgently develop an action plan for the next ten years to reduce the need to travel and to encourage people to walk, cycle, car share or use public transport instead of their cars. This again requires us to focus on funding and supporting local rail services all over the UK as well as High Speed Rail. However, if it became a choice between funding HS2 or other schemes, which would be more sustainable, especially as we need to reduce the need to travel?

Thirdly, will the new route will benefit the region economically?

Its proposers argue that it will create jobs and investment in the region. This is probably true; invest billions in any major infrastructure project, and it will almost certainly create jobs and some amount of investment in any area. The question here is whether the jobs being created will match the labour pool in the Midlands, or will be filled by people from outside the region. More importantly, is this the most cost-efficient way of creating these jobs, or could we create more jobs that are more permanent in the region using less money? For example, how many jobs could be created by upgrading and expanding the local and regional rail network? Or by building new rolling stock to expand capacity on the current network?

Furthermore, with a quick link between London and Birmingham, the risk is that the line is used as a commuter route for people to live in the Midlands and commute to London, which is hardly a sustainable idea and provides no regeneration for the region, instead contributing to the greater economic power of the London and South East region. If this sounds far-fetched, one just has to consider comments by Paul Kehoe, Chief Executive of Birmingham Airport, who stated that the airport could become Heathrow’s third runway with High-Speed Rail linking it to the capital. If Birmingham could become London’s new airport with the quick travel time provided by High-Speed Rail then why not certain parts of the Midlands the new London commuter belt? This, by its very nature, could create development pressures in the area surrounding the proposed interchange station. 

The location of the Birmingham Interchange station is a car-based development in the wrong place. We would question why it is not at International station to facilitate connections with the WCML and local trains at one location. This would also build on existing connections with Birmingham Airport and The NEC instead of requiring new infrastructure to be built. 

The Birmingham city centre station is in danger of becoming on the end of a branch line and more needs to be done to convince that this is a major plank of the HSR aspirations of the nation. In addition, the land around this development in Eastside risks remaining blighted by uncertainty for many years until the work is completed and the line is actually operational.

The maintenance yard at Washwood Heath, former LDV and Metro Camel manufacturing factory locations, does not seem to be the best use of valuable land. We would like to see other uses for this land being considered with a comparison of the benefits accruing from those and being used for HS2 maintenance. Generating 300 jobs on this site does not seem like a good value of land use to us. 

We would like the Government and indeed Birmingham City Council to consider other options like a dedicated freight line or a new conventional speed line as alternatives to building a high speed line, as the higher the speed the more emissions are produced to power it.If the new line goes ahead, it is important that it links with High Speed 1 and the Channel Tunnel in order to provide through trains to continental destinations – a greener alternative to flying. It must also serve city centre rather than ‘parkway’ stations so that it is fully integrated with public transport, walking and cycling. Links to airports are not a priority in our view and we oppose the “Interchange” station that cuts into the greenbelt opening it up to more car-based unsustainable development.

The fourth consideration is social inclusivity, i.e who will the line actually benefit?

Firstly it will only benefit people who live near the ends of the route, the current plans have no intermediate stations between the Midlands and London, meaning the only people it will actually benefit in terms of higher speeds will be people in Birmingham and London and, as we have already mentioned, some people in some areas could actually lose services. Also, tickets to travel on these services might not be affordable and certainly more expensive than current services to London, and so the question of who can actually afford to travel on this line also arises. The worry is it will only be affordable to people travelling on business, benefiting very few of the people for whom job creation and a sustainable economy are most needed.

Our Conclusions

We do not believe the current High-Speed plans fit into a sustainable transport system,will benefit the regional economy significantly, compared to other uses of similar amounts of money,or are socially inclusive.Over a longer distance High-Speed would make more sense, i.e  starting construction at the end of the country with the worst transport links (Scotland and the North), as opposed to the best (London and the South East). These plans do not do that, the line is not certain ever to reach Scotland.

In addition, should we not be questioning the nature of needing more capacity? While there are those who say the railway will be full if we do not build this route, there are some who argue that travel demand will begin to plateau, questioning the entire need for more routes in the first place.

Instead of arguing over the need for more or less long-distance travel, we would prefer that Centro, the West Midlands ITA and Birmingham City Council lobby government to invest this money in strengthening local and regional links, so we have good quality services in our area that benefit local people and keep our investment in the region, as well as truly strengthening our local economy.

Birmingham Friends of the Earth