The ups and downs of route engineering

In this blog I will examine another of the assertions made by Justine Greening MP, Secretary of State for Transport, in her statement on HS2 to the House of Commons on Tuesday 10th January 2012 (transcript). She said:

“I have looked hard at how we can better protect our landscape, our wildlife and our heritage. For that reason, my engineers have carefully re-examined the route in the light of all the evidence. I can therefore announce a package of alterations that I believe will significantly reduce the railway’s impact.”

Now it is undoubtedly true that changes have been made to the route and that some of these changes have reduced environmental impacts. The most high profile of these changes is, I would venture, the tunnel extension near Amersham, which was correctly forecast in The Daily Telegraphin early December 2011 (here) in an article that I discussed in my blog Please don’t rush me (posted 23 Dec 2011).

The predictions in that article were, as it has turned out, remarkably accurate and were, obviously, from a very well informed source; I will leave my readers to speculate what that source might have been.

One of the snippets of information in the article, which certainly rang alarm bells for me, was that “officials in the Department for Transport have found the extra cash from other spending along the … route”. Just what this means is explained further on in the article:

“The money has been found from a thorough review of the entire route and reconfiguring some of the deep cuttings and green tunnels further up the line.”

So isn’t that clever? The “officials in the Department for Transport” have saved money and, as the Transport Secretary assures us, her engineers been able to “significantly reduce the railway’s impact” on the environment. Amazing that, but it is only when you look at the detail of the new route alignments that were e-published on the same day as Ms Greening made her statement, that you begin to wonder.

Now human nature being what it is, I have only looked in detail at the realignments in my own neck of the woods (Cubbington, Warwickshire). Our large and deep cutting has, as the newspaper article predicted, been “reconfigured”. It is now shallower, by up to five metres in places. This has saved money, because it has reduced the spoil that will need to be excavated and disposed of.

However the Secretary of State’s engineers have another money saving trick up their sleeves. You can save on the cost of carting the spoil away from site and paying to dump it in landfill if you can find a place to tip it locally. Embankments on the route are the ideal dumping ground, and the higher that you make the embankments the more spoil you can get rid of.

That is exactly what the bright sparks in HS2 Ltd have done in Cubbington. We have an embankment that will allow HS2 to span the beautiful LeamValley. It was a bad enough eyesore and potential noise pollution source before the latest reconfiguration, but we discovered on the day of the Transport Secretary’s statement that it is now planned to make it higher, up to nearly four metres higher in the worst case.

I have seen a report from my next door village, Offchurch, which indicates that similar tricks have been worked there. Before this latest change, succeeding reworks have increasingly lowered the rail bed across most of Offchurch Parish. The local action group report that in the latest reconfiguration “it has been significantly raised again right across Offchurch”.

The report from South Heath, in the heart of the Chilterns AONB, is that the village is “now in a worse position”.

I am sure that Cubbington, Offchurch and South Heath are not three isolated cases, but are indicative of a widespread and general worsening of the environmental impact of  HS2, which is the result of a money-saving exercise.

I fail to see what has happened as being consistent with the Transport Secretary’s portrayal of measures being taken to “significantly reduce the railway’s impact”. Reducing the depth of cuttings and increasing the height of embankments negates previous attempts to “reduce potential environmental impacts” that were announced by HS2 Ltd in a newsletter issued on 8th September 2010. These previous measures included “lowering [the route] to reduce the extent and height of viaducts and embankments”.

In the light of what I have seen on the new route map for my own area, I am reluctantly beginning to form the opinion that the new Transport Secretary is no more worthy of our trust than her predecessor was.

There is a technical term for what has happened; we have been SHAFTED.

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