• Benjamin Woods: Rants & Other Ramblings Founder

COMMENT: It's time to mind the gap and jump aboard High Speed 2

HS2: The logical answerer for capacity, the environment, British industry & jobs...

If only politicians knew what they where talking about


Conservative minded people like myself are naturally suspicious of the rail network. On the surface, trains can feel like a socialist endeavour; faceless hordes travelling on pre-determined routes and schedules to the same dreary destinations. However, this feeling ignores many of the founding principles of conservatism. Peter Hitchens makes this argument in his Mail on Sunday blog, Why are trains left-wing, and cars conservative? He points to the conservation of the countryside, which I discuss in further detail later on, and highlights the discipline, loyalty and dedication both of the workers and the consumers. But Hitchens also makes another point that few consider when it comes to railway networks. He eloquently points to how stations give a centre to towns and cities, how they act as a focal point for development and to use his words, “promote cohesion and discourage shapeless ribbon development and the atomisation of society which follows when everyone relies on the car for transport”.

A lot has been made of the possible new working environment post-COVID-19, how we won’t need cars and trains anymore, how the days of commuting and face to face meetings are a thing of a bygone age consigned to the history books. However, this, to put it bluntly, is total nonsense. Offices will fill again. Meetings will be rescheduled. Smoking areas and water coolers will once again be centres for discussions on last night’s Match of the Day and office romance rumours. Already the statistics strongly point to this. Only one in ten workers remain on furlough down from a peak of over three in ten. Business executives surveyed by the Institute of Directors are overwhelmingly optimistic compared to those who feel pessimistic at 40% to 28%. The most encouraging statistic from the perspective of the transport industry is the growth in people travelling to work, increasing from 37% in May to 57% in early September with fewer than 20% working exclusively from home, half of the number at the pandemics peak. As I write this I am currently confined in a local lockdown, one of several across the United Kingdom with workers being told to work from home, and so by the time you read this it is likely some of the statistics above may have shifted back to where they were earlier in the year. However, the point is they did rebound, and rebound strongly; something that was contested at the time, and they will do again.

Pre COVID-19 (remember that) in 2018, 69 billion vehicle miles were travelled on Great Britain’s motorways a small increase from 2017 and a massive 63% increase from 1993 when data collection began. Of those vehicle miles, 72% of them were performed in cars and taxis. In other words that’s 50 billion miles travelled on our motorways that could be more efficient, faster and greener travelling on high-speed rail links like HS2 than in millions of separate cars. The UK population is on course to swell to over 72 million people by mid-2043, rising 6million; almost all of the growth, a rise of 5.7 million, attributed to England. Therefore the demand for services like travel is expected to increase substantially throughout HS2’s lifetime, not diminish.

The strongest arguments that are often presented against HS2 are not based on demand, however, but on dressed up environmental concerns put forward not by environmentalists but by the fringes of the NIMBY brigade and the bazaar phenomenon in British politics that is the Green Party. A large part of me wanted to just ignore these bizarre ramblings but more and more of their arguments are being given credence by the media and government, so instead I shall confront them head-on.

As my starting point when I was researching these fantastical claims, I clicked on the Green Party website and quickly navigated myself to a page entitled “HS2 IS AN ACT OF ECOCIDE” (full marks for the title btw). It begins by detailing a time and place for a protest before a small paragraph on its ballooning cost; surprising as the Green Party have never struck me as the fiscally responsible types before. The rest of the article goes on to quote the Green Party co-leader Jonathan Bartley, which I shall briefly dissect explaining why it’s wrong.

The opening line: “HS2 is an act of Ecocide and must be stopped.” Not much to discuss here apart from no it isn’t and no it shouldn’t, but we shall get onto why in a moment. The second line reads “It will bulldoze huge areas of natural woodland and cut wildlife habitats in half.” This is the most used attack line that I have come across. Like most politicians, he hides behind words like “huge areas” by never defining what constitutes a huge area. But whatever your yardstick I would argue that HS2 doesn’t meet this charge anyway. Of the 52,000 ancient woodland sights, 51,968 are unaffected. I would say that means that “huge areas” are unaffected but I will give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he was referring to the 0.083% of ancient woodland sites that are affected. Well as it turns out of the 43 sights that are affected 80% of their combined total area is intact and untouched by HS2. So this means that “huge areas” of the 43 ancient woodland sites are also unaffected. Maybe it wasn’t the words “huge areas” that were wrong at all maybe when he said “bulldoze” he meant to create, because imagine my surprise to find out a co-leader of the Green party forgot to mention the creation of a green corridor along HS2’s route. This will encompass an area the size of 4,600 football pitches, an increase of 30% on the current natural areas that are there now. On top of this 7 million new trees and shrubs will be planted on the first phase alone, including 40 native species-specific to each location. Well, they should be donating some of the money spent to a woodland fund on top of this I hear you cry. It turns out HS2 will be doing just that, donating £7 million to help restore existing ancient woodlands and create new ones that connect or extend these existing ancient woodlands. He didn’t mention this either, fancy that.

The remaining of the quote makes no further attempt to point to specific environmental concerns using broad generalisations such as “this huge environmental disaster” and “this nightmare project”. I had to re-read the article to make sure of this because I was amazed to find that nowhere on the page does the article refer to carbon emissions. How could this be? Well as it turns out, HS2 offers one of the lowest carbon emissions per passenger kilometre. Not only is it seventeen times less polluting than domestic air travel it is also seven times less polluting than passenger cars, which are responsible for 91% of our transport emissions.

As you can probably tell, I could talk all day about this subject but don’t worry, I am just going to make one final point, and then I will leave you alone. It’s just a small matter about the entire purpose of HS2. The issue is politicians seem to know as much about HS2 as a small child. You see them on the news saying things like, “but this train goes very fast”, as they struggle with their Neanderthal level of comprehension. Yes, it’s true it goes fast there’s quite a big clue in the name. But although speed is the poster boy boast on the HS2 pamphlet, it isn’t the real issue HS2 solves. The reduction in journey time is the snail in escargot, the bit everyone points to and says, “ooooh snails”. However, people buy escargot in fancy French restaurants, not because of the eye-catching snail in the dishes name, everyone actually just wants the garlic butter. And it’s the same with HS2. Yes everyone points to the speed and the journey time, but that’s not what makes HS2 desirable. The thing that HS2 does that we all actually want is it puts high speed and commuter trains on separate tracks. As dull as that sounds, it’s the key, it’s the garlic sauce in escargot.

Think of freight trains and commuter trains; you know the ones that stop at every station along the way, as those HGV juggernauts on the motorway. Now you’re in your brand new Merc cruising along the motorway running down the miles in the middle lane when you come up behind the HGV in front. What do you do? You move into the fast lane and overtake. But now imagine there is no fast lane, just one single lane. You’re sitting there in your high-speed Merc that might as well be a Reliant Robin at this point with no way to overtake for miles and miles on end. Well, that’s the current situation on Britain’s railways. It means that you can have a train fully equipped with warp drive and inertial dampeners but if its stuck behind a commuter train Captain Piccard and crew can expect to buckle up for the long haul. By having two separate tracks, you can run more fast and slow trains. That’s more commuter, more intercity and also more commercial freight trains. The Mercedes Benz of trains can frequently travel at top speeds, the HGV juggernauts of trains can frequently travel at slower speeds. It’s all about the capacity and frequency, not just the speed. As I have previously pointed out, we are going to be needing a lot more capacity over the decades to come, especially if we are to hit zero carbon by 2050.

There is one thing I have tactfully left out so far. A small matter of the £100 billion spare change the treasury needs to dig out of its pockets. It is a lot, and the tax returns from the 25,000 workers and 2,000 apprentices directly involved with its construction on top of the 100,000 jobs created on the broader economy won’t cover it. I would put it to HS2’s fiercest critics that a great deal of money has been spent fighting these very same groups, but there is no getting away from the fact for a single project it doesn’t scream value for money. However, just like any industry, the rollover of the same design with the same workers reduces the cost with each successive project, and we should do the same. One of the biggest reasons for the eye-watering price tag is the need to import foreign designs and adapt them with the need to upskill and reskill large sections of the British workforce. Once this has been achieved, it won’t be lost immediately, though it won’t last indefinitely. There is no sense in stopping with phase one of HS2 or even HS2 full stop. With each subsequent project representing more bang for your buck, we should be using this as a springboard for a massive investment in rail throughout our United Kingdom. For example, there is no direct train link between North and South Wales with travellers having to travel via England which is crazy, or it would be if it wasn’t for the even more bemusing fact that there is not even a direct motorway link from North to South Wales. HS2 is the logical answer when discussing transport and freight capacity, the environment, rail projects going forward, boosting British industry and creating British jobs.

Its time to mind the gap and jump aboard High Speed 2.

Benjamin Woods

Masters Student in Civil Engineering and Founder of BW: Rants and Other Ramblings

Linked Articles

Mail on Sunday: Peter Hitchens Blog - ‘Why are trains left-wing, and cars conservative?’

https://hitchensblog.mailonsunday.co.uk/2007/10/why-are-trains-.html

Telegraph – ‘Confidence on the rise for UK bosses as more workers return.’

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2020/09/03/working-home-fades-staff-commuted-least-last-week/

Road Traffic Estimates – DfT Road Traffic Estimates In Great Britain

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/808555/road-traffic-estimates-in-great-britain-2018.pdf

Population Estimates – ONS National Population Projections

https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/populationprojections/bulletins/nationalpopulationprojections/2018based

Green Party – ‘HS2 IS AN ACT OF ECOCIDE’

https://www.greenparty.org.uk/news/2019/11/28/hs2-is-an-act-of-ecocide-green-party-call-for-end-to-devastating-%C2%A380-billion-project/

HS2 – Environment Sustainability

https://www.hs2.org.uk/building-hs2/environment-sustainability/#:~:text=High%20speed%20rail%20travel%20is,less%20than%20domestic%20air%20travel.

HS2 – Capacity

https://www.hs2.org.uk/why/capacity/

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