Beware of Greeks bearing gifts

The report by the Commons Transport Select Committee High Speed Rail (here) mainly concerns itself with whether the HS2 proposal makes sense as an infrastructure investment for the United Kingdom; it describes HS2 as “probably the largest single investment in UK transport infrastructure in modern times”. Notwithstanding this economic focus, the report also touches on some of the implications that HS2 will have for the environment and some of the recommendations in the report, if carried out, may clarify or modify the environmental assessment. It is these aspects of the report that I shall concentrate on in this blog.

On one massively important environmental issue raised by HS2 the report is totally silent. Anyone who has read my blogs Scoring an own goal (posted 22 Sep) and You weren’t supposed to read that (posted 26 Sep) will be aware that “HS2 is effectively an ‘unsustainable’ project”. The TSC are, apparently, ignorant of this rather serious failing in these supposedly environmentally-aware times; perhaps someone from our campaign should have told them?

The TSC is, however, on the case when it comes to carbon emissions. As part of the preamble to Section 5 the following extract from The Coalition: our programme for government is quoted:

“We will establish a high speed rail network as part of our programme of measures to fulfil our joint ambitions for creating a low carbon economy.”

In paragraph 77 of the report the TSC gives this notion short shrift:

“Some supporters of HS2 have argued that it would have substantial carbon reduction benefits. These claims do not stand up to scrutiny. At best, HS2 has the potential to make a small contribution to the Government’s carbon-reduction targets. Given the scale of the expenditure and the official assessment, HS2 should not be promoted as a carbon-reduction scheme.”

This comment is spot on and the TSC is also on the ball in its questioning of how and why a design speed of 250 mph had been specified. In paragraph 68 the TSC concludes that any new line should be “high speed”, but goes on to question what this means:

“It is possible however, that very high speed (250 mph) may have been given an undue emphasis as a result of the particular appraisal method used as part of the economic case. It may be that a high-speed line operating at less than 250 mph may offer greater opportunities for noise and environmental impact mitigation, as well as an opportunity to follow existing transport corridors. We are concerned that the decision to build a 250 mph line has prematurely ruled out other route options such as building HS2 alongside an existing motorway corridor such as the M40 or M1/M6.”

Hallelujah! Go back to the spring and I too was asking in my blogs whether HS2 really had to be designed for 250 mph. But hold on, the TSC is not only saying that the Government should think again about 250 mph, but it is also saying that other route options were “prematurely ruled out”. This nudge towards a less environmentally damaging route possibility becomes a full-scale shove in paragraph 83, which includes the snippet:

“We would encourage the Government to place greater emphasis on following existing transport corridors.”

This sentiment, which is repeated in the Conclusions and recommendations section (in paragraph 13), has added significance in view of the recent speech by Shadow Transport Secretary Maria Eagle, in which she said that Labour now favoured a route following the M40 northwards.

The report makes two further suggestions that will be of great interest to those of us who value our environment.

The first is in paragraph 87:

“It is also of concern that the Government intends to reach a decision on whether to proceed with Phase I before information on the Y network is published and before many of the environmental impacts for both phases are clear. We recommend that no decision is taken until such strategic information on Phase II is published, appraised and consulted upon.”

The second refers to the Government’s recent Natural Environment White Paper and the proposals therein to include the cost of the loss of “natural capital” when evaluating the business case for new projects. The suggestion is made in paragraph 83 that:

“… the revised business plan for HS2 should take account of the Government’s new approach to economic appraisal, which places a monetary value on natural capital.”

But it’s not all good news. There is a single sentence in paragraph 83 of the report, referring to the noise nuisance from HS2, that has made me very angry:

“Our visit to the Arup sound laboratory suggests to us that noise impacts may be less than feared but for other factors it is impossible to tell.”

Now I realise that the honourable members probably don’t know the difference between a decibel and a doorbell, but I would have hoped that they wouldn’t have been quite so gullible. I didn’t find a single person at the roadshows that I visited in the summer who was not sceptical about the soundbooth demonstrations; the general feeling was that someone was trying to pull the wool over their eyes. My own take on this distrust and my reasons why I share it can be found in my blog Have you heard? (posted 12 Jul).

Perhaps noise is another area where the campaign against has failed to drive home the message.

So notwithstanding its shortcomings and support for high speed rail, this seemly inoffensive report does seem to have some teeth hidden away in the detail. The Government would be well advised to treat this potential Trojan Horse with caution. As I said in the title, “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”.

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