A change of heart

Way back before the public consultation that was held in 2011, the design ethos of HS2 Ltd appeared to be to minimise the visual and noise impact of HS2 wherever possible. This certainly appeared to be the intent in the six months following the initial announcement in March 2010, and the publishing of new route maps in September that year. In a newsletter published by HS2 Ltd on 7th September 2010, and signed by the then Chairman Sir Brian Briscoe, the reason for the new maps is explained:

“In the past few months we have been refining parts of our recommended route for a high speed railway line between London and the West Midlands in order to reduce potential environmental impacts, and we have now delivered our recommendations to the Government.”

The newsletter also explains that the way that HS2 Ltd has been able to “reduce potential environmental impacts” is by “moving the line further from towns and villages or sensitive sites, and lowering it to reduce the extent and height of viaducts and embankments”.

This policy still appears to have been in force when the public consultation was launched in February 2011; the route maps that were published for that consultation were generally the same as the September versions, with only minor “tweaks” resulting from further engineering work.

A new set of route maps was published at the time that the Rt Hon Justine Greening MP made her announcement in January 2012 that HS2 was to go ahead. The Secretary of State set high expectations for the design reflected in these maps in her statement to the House of Commons:

“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 when I “looked hard” at the map covering my local area I found that the previous good work of “lowering [the trackbed] to reduce the extent and height of viaducts and embankments” had been undone. As I reported in my blog The ups and downs of route engineering (posted 9 Feb 2012) the height of the embankment and viaduct proposed for the very environmentally-sensitive crossing of the Leam Valley had been increased by up to four metres, significantly increasing the visual impact and potential to generate noise pollution. I also commented in that blog that I had received reports from other communities that had seen similar trackbed height increases.

During the intervening twelve months plus of detailed design work nothing has been done to get back to the pre-consultation trackbed heights in my parish, despite community requests made through the community forum process. As I mentioned in my blog Changing of the guard (posted 2 Apr 2013), unpublished provisional drawings of the state of the design at February 2013 have recently been released to community representatives. In my area these new drawings show some small departures from the January 2012 design, but are broadly consistent. The ups and downs in trackbed height for my local section of track are summarised in the diagram below, which shows the “cut and fill” figures for the January 2012 (in mauve) and February 2013 (in green) designs rationalised to a base of the February 2011 design, i.e. a zero value on the graph at any distance point represents the February 2011 design cut and fill level.

Post-consultation trackbed height changes in Cubbington

Post-consultation trackbed height changes in Cubbington

This diagram confirms that the trackbed height has been increased over virtually the whole run through my parish, by more than 5 metres in the worst case; hardly an insignificant change. I have indicated three particularly environmentally-sensitive areas on the diagram by thick black horizontal lines: South Cubbington Wood, the embankment north of the River Leam, and the viaduct over the River Leam. All three have been affected by the trackbed height increase, the Wood and the embankment particularly so.

To cap it all, HS2 Ltd has told my local community forum that the trackbed height is still under review and is likely to be raised further over a part of the route through our parish. I expect that this will have a knock-on effect on the Leam Valley crossing, making the intrusive embankments still higher.

So what is the reason for this apparent change of policy by HS2 Ltd subsequent to the public consultation? When the engineers that attend the meetings with our local community representatives are pressed for reasons as to why certain changes have been made, they are increasingly admitting that cost factors are driving the design. Increasing the trackbed height brings cost savings, as less excavation is required for cuttings, and more excavated spoil can be utilised in higher embankments, saving on disposal costs. Some confirmation that cost considerations are dictating the design may be gleaned from an interview with Andrew Coombes, HS2 Ltd’s Head of Specification and Assurance, reported in the Rail Engineer. In the article Mr Coombes is quoted as saying:

“At consultation, there was a shared cost estimate and that was set against the benefits case for the scheme. This provides an envelope for the cost expectation which has been apportioned to each area of the route. Each area has a target cost or indeed target saving.”

My guess from this is that my local area is one where a “target saving” has been specified. But Mr Coombes also says:

“The environmental effects are a major part of the submission. In fact the largest part deals with the effects that the construction and operation will have on the environment and what is being done to mitigate these.”

What he fails to admit is that there is often a conflict between a design that minimises environmental impacts and the constraints applied by defined cost targets. However he does imply that he recognises this dilemma in another of his statements:

“It’s important to ensure the best design is retained both in terms of a good railway and also in terms of a railway we can afford.”

I am becoming increasingly concerned that, in my area at least, what can be afforded is having far more sway with the design engineers than any considerations of environmental impacts. What is clear is that there has been a change of design policy since the public consultation, resulting in a demonstrably worse design in environmental terms in some areas, including mine; I doubt that this change of policy can be justified as a response to comments received as a result of the consultation. I question the morality of moving the goal posts in this way subsequent to a public consultation; what we have now is not what we were asked to comment on.

Acknowledgement: I am grateful to Madeleine Wahlberg for producing the diagram that I have used in this blog.


4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Luisa on April 18, 2013 at 6:52 am

    The same thing is happening at Euston Station. We are about to be officially presented with a new station design (to save costs). It will require the same land take, and the same destruction of hundreds of homes, 50 mature plane trees, an ancient burial ground etc. But now what is being proposed is effectively a low-cost lean-to on the side of the existing ugly and out-of-date station. There will be none of the possible benefits – replacement housing, green space and East-West permeability across the site. Only the loss.


    • I share your concerns about the volte-face at Euston “Luisa” and have a blog “On second thoughts …” already written on this matter. I plan to post it at the end of this month.


  2. Posted by mike on May 14, 2013 at 10:15 am

    Peter, you referred me to this from my Stop HS2 comment. As elsewhere, HS2 clearly takes no prisoners. Looking at the HS2 plan (via thehs2.com), I suggest they had to raise the trackbed height through cutting in sth cudd wood because the 1250m “HS2 Retaining Structure” i.e. girder and concrete wall (?), could not cope at original depth.


    • That’s an interesting point Mike and in the latest design HS2 Ltd has reduced the use of concrete walls to just the areas that are adjacent to woodland; the rest of the cutting has been changed back to sloping sides.
      However, in none of our discussions have HS2 Ltd engineers cited technical problems as a reason for the design changes that have been made, but they have readily owned up to cost constraints being a reason.


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