A lot has been written, said and shouted about the proposed High-Speed route from the Midlands to London. It would be easy to characterise the new route as a line of concrete and metal destroying the landscape with no regard to the environment in the name of progress. However, High-Speed Rail is not air-travel or coal-fired power stations, trains themselves are not inherently bad for the environment. In fact trains are a key part of any sustainable transport system. For something like High-Speed Rail the question as to 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? Well the travel times would suggest yes, 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.
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. 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.
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 many 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 brand new shiny 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 will also mean that certain areas, such as Coventry, will lose their current fast and frequent connection to London. Added to which, there are probably cheaper ways to have more spaces for more trains, such as more tracks or passing loops and better signalling.
The next thing to consider is whether 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 these jobs be filled by people outside the region? And more importantly is this the most cost-efficient way of creating these jobs, 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, 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 the Midlands the new London commuter belt?
The final consideration is social inclusivity, who will the line actually benefit? Firstly it will only benefit people who live near the ends of the route, there will be few if any 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 will actually lose services. Also tickets to travel on these services will not be cheap and certainly more expensive than current services to London, and so the question of who can actually afford to travel on these shiny new trains also arises. The worry is it will only be affordable to people travelling on business, fuelling the feeling that it is just a vanity project that will result in a rich-man’s railway.
“Well what would you suggest?” I hear you cry? And I admit there is a temptation to back the new project because it appears green, and as environmentalists we often find ourselves opposing every new big project that comes along, which makes it even more tempting to support this idea. But as I hope I have already shown, the current High-Speed plans aren’t green, they won’t benefit the regional economy and aren’t socially inclusive. If we were building a high-speed railway from Scotland down to the Midlands and then the South, I could possibly see the benefits, a longer distance where High-Speed makes more sense, and starting construction at the end of the country with the worse transport links (Scotland and the North) as opposed to the best (London and the South East), but these plans do not do that, the line is not certain ever to reach Scotland. Added to which, 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. But instead of arguing over the need for more or less long-distance travel, how about we 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? So instead of just being against High-Speed 2 how about we are also massively for Regional Rail 1?