Cost may be a barrier

A postscript on noise mitigation efficiency

I have been sent a link to an interview that was broadcast on BBC Three Counties Radio in July 2012, which I regard as an interesting postscript to my series Impacts of aerodynamic noise on noise mitigation efficiency, and I thought therefore that I should share it with you.

The interviewee is Giles Parker, who is Managing Director of Sound Barrier Solutions. We are told at the start of the interview that this is a company that “designs sound proofing for major transport projects”, so the more suspicious amongst you may think that Mr Parker has a vested interest in talking up the need for good noise mitigation on HS2. However, Mr Parker also tells us that he is the Chair of “the BSI committee for noise barrier design for highways in the UK” and that, in addition, he is “the lead to the European delegation for noise barriers for highways for the whole of Europe”.

I think that we can have high regard for the opinions of such an eminent professional in his field, and anticipate that he will demonstrate the integrity that we should expect from the holder of such distinguished posts. Also what he says accords with what my own research has revealed, so I am happy to recommend his views to you.

The first question that Mr Parker was asked is:

“Can you explain the noise impact of a high speed train line?”

Those of you that have read my blog series Assessing the annoyance caused by HS2 noise will not be surprised that his reply indicates that he thinks that HS2 noise will be particularly annoying:

“If I compare it with a highway, where you’ve got continuous noise – if you live next door to a motorway, generally you will have a continuous ‘whooshing’ sound. The difference with a HS2 train is that it’s a sudden impact, it’s a sudden event, it breaks the silence. If you talk about impact, you are talking about human perception and people are far more annoyed by a sudden break in the silence than they are by just an increase in general noise.”

And that the current tranquillity of much of the countryside through which HS2 will pass adds to the impact:

“If you’ve got a very tranquil environment and suddenly you hear the ‘whoosh’ of a train going through, then you will notice it.”

When the conversation moves on to how the impact of HS2 noise could be reduced by the use of noise barriers, Mr Parker’s specialist subject, it is clear that he is not impressed by the attitude of developers in the UK, which he compares with what happens in mainland Europe:

“They [the Europeans] start by spending a lot more money. There’s a different mentality in Europe. On the positive side there is a far greener concept and [they] are prepared to put far more money into making sure that roads, rail – intrusive noise sources – are properly mitigated against, and so they put more money into it.

“In the UK for a typical highway – and that would be the same for rail – they might be spending about £300 or £400 per linear metre on, say, a three-metre high barrier, which typically would be made of wood. You can multiply that by four or five times on the Continent, and be looking at far higher quality systems that do the job properly.”

Specifically on the team designing HS2 he comments:

“We know what quality specifications there are for highways. What we want to know from HS2 is what levels of specification – what quality levels – they are designing to. Until they are clear about that, then it’s very hard to assess whether they are doing anything right or not.”

So is he right? Is the likelihood that HS2 noise mitigation will be done “on the cheap” and will be inadequate? Certainly, the need to keep costs down could be seen as the motivation behind HS2 Ltd downplaying the impact of aerodynamic noise on barrier design; barriers that adequately shield the whole train would be very expensive.

Mr Parker seems to think that it is very probably a question of budgets:

“What are the levels of cost that they are putting in for the mitigation measures? I don’t know what those are … but my suspicion is that they are not as high as they should be, because that’s very typical at this stage of projects in the UK, of this size.”

Mr Parker also reveals another worrying judgment that he has about the “experts” that we are relying on to keep HS2 noise in check:

“I’ve been training acoustic consultants in the UK for the last fifteen years on noise barrier specification for highways. What we find is that the majority do not know how to design barriers.

“Generally, we find that there is a lack of understanding and it boils down to the fact that the design methods in the UK for mitigating against noise, both for road and rail, are not geared to designing noise barriers in particular.”

At one stage in the conversation the interviewer asks the question:

“Is it possible for these trains … to go unnoticed, soundwise, through this part of the British countryside?”

This solicits a surprising response from a man who makes his living designing noise barriers:

“Absolutely, it’s called tunnelling. I come from the point of view that unless you can’t tunnel why not?

He is not alone in holding this view. HS2 Ltd’s “in” tray is bulging with proposals from communities along the route that have looked at their local situation and have come to the same conclusion.

PS: Just in case you might think that my blogs on noise have been a bit on the theoretical side, might I suggest that you check out the reality portrayed in this video. The video uses a sound recording of HS1 passing at 300kph that was made by the BBC for its Radio 4 series Costing the Earth. Also remember that HS1 operates at slower speeds than planned for HS2 and that, accordingly, we can expect that HS2 trains will be noisier.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by chriseaglen on December 21, 2012 at 7:56 pm

    The noise barriers may be bought and installed by contractors and not HS2. Value engineering passes as cost cutting to the contractor and in this case subcontractor.
    If the project becomes PFI then this sequence of decisions is with the investor not the proposer. The communities have sufficient information for the BSI team to design the optimum requirements for communities and to have those proposals put to the HS2 DFT and local authorities as counter objectors in advance of the EIA ES work. This is a valid approach for decisions communities consider are subject to Judicial Review


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