The climate emergency poses a grave threat to humanity and our natural world. On this, environmentalists agree. How best to deal with this crisis, though, is subject to fierce debate
There are many tools we can deploy to decarbonise our world, from the wind turbine to the high-speed train. These typically come with localised harms which must be weighed against their global benefits.
‘Think global, act local’ is one of the tenets of the green movement. It challenges environmentalists to think holistically. Perhaps a prioritisation of the local (harm to a Home Counties woodland) at the expense of the global (the carbon-induced cataclysm of failing to tackle emissions) explains how HS2 has come to be opposed by the Green Party of England and Wales (GPEW).
This opposition is perplexing to some outside observers – surely electrified rail is exactly what we need to achieve a zero-carbon society? Surely rail needs to be expanded, to challenge the supremacy of pollution-spewing cars, lorries and planes? Well in principle, the Greens agree. Indeed, party policy expressly supports a new north-south high-speed rail line – just not HS2.
In opposing HS2, GPEW’s stance is an outlier. High-speed rail projects are backed by Green parties on the continent and, closer to home, by the Scottish Greens. HS2 also finds increasing support within the GPEW membership, hence Greens4HS2.
Why Greens should support HS2
GPEW opposition to HS2 is based mostly on its negative impact on habitats – particularly ancient woodland – and communities. Its eye-watering cost is also a factor. What isn’t well understood by most Greens is the positive side: what we get from HS2 in return for those impacts, and how that supports Green aspirations.
GPEW transport policy is based on a set of overriding objectives, which focus on the need to reduce the resource consumption of transport and shift the balance from air, lorry and private car towards active transport, bus, boat and rail.
On top of these broader sustainability goals, the climate emergency adds a major urgency to the need to decarbonise. Of all the generators of greenhouse gases, transport is the worst sector and the one most resistant to change; in fact in recent decades the amount of CO2 generated by transport has actually increased, while that from power generation, industry and housing has gone down. Most of this CO2 is generated by road transport, chiefly cars. And, although most car trips are short and therefore potentially replaceable by active transport and local public transport, it is the smaller number of longer trips that eat up most miles and so generate the bulk of the CO2.
Various studies have looked into how to decarbonise transport, such as ‘Zero Carbon Britain’ by the Centre for Alternative Technology (CET), the Committee on Climate Change’s ‘Net Zero’ report and the UK FIRES ‘Absolute Zero’ report. Their route maps to zero CO2 all involve reducing the amount of travel but crucially, also, modal shift – moving the remaining travel from high-CO2 to low-CO2 modes. Rail, particularly electrified rail, is the lowest-CO2 mass transit mode there is for distances further than you can walk or cycle. Thus, they all require a large step-change upwards in rail use – as much as doubling it.
The Sankey Diagram shows the CET plan. On the left, the current distribution of travel modes; on the right, their view for 2050. The blue shows journeys that won’t take place in 2050 that did today; the red shows rail – increasing by about 50 per cent because of modal shift from car and air, even though some 20 per cent of current rail trips would not take place.
It is worth noting that analysis of Covid-accelerated changes to working patterns seems to be converging on an impact of about 20 per cent reduction in rail demand. These changes are exactly as foreseen by CET.
GPEW’s own internal decarbonisation strategy, which informed the policies in its 2019 general election manifesto, makes similar assumptions. It would require 50 per cent more rail travel, alongside major reductions in flying and car use.
So we are going to need significantly more rail capacity. But how is all this capacity to be delivered? This is where we say GPEW has failed to join up the dots. Adding capacity to our rail network is HS2’s raison d’etre. The need for that capacity was foreseen way back in 2003 at the time of Network Rail’s ‘New Lines’ study. At the time it was thought that population and GDP growth would drive the extra demand for rail. Greens wouldn’t necessarily buy that ‘predict and provide’ stance – but the problem is the same even if the main driver is now modal shift to help decarbonisation.
We recognise all the work that was done during the 2000s to look at how best to provide the capacity, and agree with the conclusion that the most effective way is a new high-speed line that relieves the big bottlenecks on the West Coast Main Line and at key hubs – Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds – by shifting the express trains that gobble up so much capacity on to their own tracks. By taking those trains away, space is opened up for much better local and inter-regional services centred on those key regional hubs; and by having the expresses on dedicated fast lines, we can have many more of them and they can be faster and so much more competitive with the car and air alternatives over longer distances.
Various other sets of interventions have been proposed as alternatives to HS2, involving upgrades to existing lines, some new lines and other infrastructure improvements as well as new signalling and train lengths. Some of these are seized on by GPEW as viable, but we share the view of industry commentators including Network Rail that they don’t make the strategic-level step-change in capacity and capability that we need, as well as causing vast long-running disruption to the existing network during construction that will put many prospective rail users off.
Further, none of the alternatives has had a proper environmental impact assessment or has been costed to the level of detail of HS2; none has been properly scrutinised or consulted upon with affected parties. It is clear to us that any major upgrade programme to existing lines will be as expensive as HS2, will cause much more disruption to the habitats and communities the lines run through than HS2, and will always be constrained in performance and operational resilience by its need to follow and interact closely with the existing Victorian infrastructure. We only need to see the objections coming in from affected residents along the reopening or new sections of East West Rail at Calvert, Winslow, Bedford or Cambridge to see what opposition such schemes would attract.
We challenge the modelling and assumptions that generate the spurious and oft-quoted result that HS2 won’t be carbon-neutral in 120 years. HS2 Ltd and the government have let the country down badly by allowing this narrative to take hold. On the one hand, we acknowledge the work being done by HS2’s engineers to reduce the scheme’s embodied carbon by sensible design and use of novel materials and techniques. On the other, we strongly maintain that Green policies to favour the use of public transport over cars and planes – frequent flyer levies, airport capacity reduction, kerosene tax, road user charging, scrappage schemes, fares subsidies, integration of public transport modes—will generate much bigger modal shifts on to HS2 from plane and car, and much more rail rather than road freight mileage, than the modelling suggests. And this will lead to a much faster payback of the embodied carbon and a continuing benefit long into the future.
So in short, HS2 supports Green aspirations for much better local public transport: there isn’t any combination of tweaks and fiddles with the existing railway that can deliver as much capacity in the metropolitan centres. It’s exciting to see how regional bodies like Midlands Engine Connect and Transport for the North are planning to put the capacity freed up by HS2 to good use. And HS2 supports Green aspirations to offer a good alternative to domestic flights – it’s genuinely competitive with air for our biggest domestic corridor, between London and the Scottish central belt airports. And it supports a decarbonisation agenda.
We also see other Green wins from HS2. Without it, the party’s aspirations to re-open lines closed by Beeching would founder, as the branch line trains would not be able to get into congested main stations. And by disentangling the express trains from the local ones, it enables the local services to be focused on the needs of their communities, rather than playing second-fiddle to DfT-driven national priorities.
Why is this take at odds with the Green Party’s view?
We have taken the trouble to understand the rationale for HS2 from a railway perspective and to see that its purpose is to add capacity to the network, particularly at local level at the key Midlands and Northern hubs. We see that it is integrated with the existing rail network, not a separate premium overlay aimed at richer travellers or business people. We understand the value that its high speed gives – improving its competitiveness with air and car alternatives.
We see that its benefits accrue at least as much on the current railway network, for people living and working far off the HS2 route, as on the stations directly served. We see that it doesn’t make sense to say you are in favour of rail expansion, yet against HS2: there is no alternative set of schemes that gives you the same benefit, without building new lines. We disagree that the route and speed make the line needlessly destructive to the environment and habitats – in fact we commend the choice of route and the efforts that have clearly been made to minimise its impact.
We reject any notion, quoted by senior GPEW people, that work on HS2 comes at the expense of important upgrades to the existing network. In our view, they are complementary. We strongly support the electrification of all routes bar the most far-flung, in a rolling programme. We support new infrastructure to relieve bottlenecks and improve capacity and speed – particularly north of Wigan and into Scotland on the West Coast Main Line, at Manchester and across the Pennines. We support the re-opening of branch lines, such as the Oakhampton – Plymouth route in Devon.
But it’s not all roses: what do we want from HS2?
Just because we understand the need for HS2 and support it, that doesn’t mean we agree with everything about it. There are a number of ways it falls well short of what we as Greens demand. We think much more needs to be done to integrate HS2 with other public transport – particularly at the ‘parkway’ stations such as Interchange. This station’s name is a joke: the bus interchange is 100 metres away, there’s no clear location for the metro interchange and the most salient feature of the station is an enormous car park. Compare and contrast genuine interchange stations such as Utrecht or Rotterdam.
We want HS2 to work much more sympathetically and collaboratively with the people impacted by its construction. It is painful for them to lose their local woodlands and green spaces, homes and farms. Control over subcontractors has been lacking and bad behaviour all too common.
We want all HS2 infrastructure works to leave a positive legacy for walkers and cyclists alongside and near the route. That means ensuring bridges and roadways have proper cycling and pedestrian provision per current guidance, and taking the opportunity to make access roads and haul routes usable after construction as cycling and walking paths.
We want the trains to be configured to allow space for non-standard cycles and tandems. The combination of bike and train is a powerful one for low-impact travel at all ranges – there is no reason why HS2 should not contribute. The currently specified cycle provision is minimal, and completely inadequate for people using mobility aids or cargo bikes.
We want HS2 to disconnect itself from any airport expansion schemes. Airport expansion is completely at odds with decarbonisation. In fact, HS2 should be actively promoting itself as an alternative to air travel.
And what about Green objections to HS2?
We’ve covered many of the Greens’ standard objections to HS2 in our Twitter threads and on our website, but we’ll address a couple here.
HS2’s destruction of habitat, particularly of ancient woodland, is the biggest single objection. We of course, as Greens, understand the need to preserve and enhance habitats and hate that any sensitive habitat has to be lost. And we sympathise with those directly affected by loss local to them. However, we’re clear on two things – firstly, we’re going to have to build new infrastructure to get to zero CO2 – it won’t happen by itself, and the way that ancient woodland is scattered in small pockets across the countryside makes it all but impossible to avoid it all; secondly, the scale of impact from HS2 is grossly over-hyped. The amount of ancient woodland lost is very small – 39ha for stage one, representing less than 1/10,000th of England’s total. Even on the Woodland Trust’s list of threats, railways don’t appear in the top five. Greens would do far better to focus on those threats to woodland which don’t have any compensating environmental benefit, such as the RIS2 road expansion schemes.
HS2’s cost also features. Green statements speak of what else could be done with the money and how the project is colossally expensive. We say yes it is expensive, but it is an investment not a cost. It adds to the national debt, not the tax bill, at a time of very low interest rates; it addresses strategic concerns, and it generates a return – even if you accept the dubious modelling behind the economic case. In context, HS2 spending per year during construction is less than Network Rail spends on enhancing the current railway network, and represents about two per cent of the annual cost of the NHS. We also find it odd that Greens latch so readily on to the limited-funds austerity framing of the political right, while simultaneously favouring the massive expenditure needed for the Green New Deal.
We have covered other objections – threat to aquifers, excessive speed, energy consumption, CO2, synergy with airport expansion, connectivity – in our Twitter threads.
What do we want to change within the Green Party?
We think the Green Party’s often-stated position of opposing HS2 is harmful to its political prospects, because it is illogical and behind the times now that the railway is actually being built and there is no realistic prospect of stopping it. It’s resulted in the party taking cues from sources deeply antithetical to Green causes such as the IEA and TPA. It’s meant a cadre of sympathetic, educated and technically-minded people being unable to support the party. It’s stymied the party from making constructive criticism of HS2 on its environmental record, and the government on broader transport policy – particularly on much needed investment in rail enhancement. It means every party pronouncement on rail in social media is jumped on for its manifest illogicality or cognitive dissonance.
We want to start a process of engagement and learning between senior GPEW leaders, spokespeople and policy groups and the rail industry. We regret that there is so much ignorance within the party about the working of the railways in general; and the challenges they will face in future as they have to absorb 50 per cent more passengers and much greater freight tonnage than pre-Covid norms. We believe that once there is a better understanding of rail in general within the party, the case for HS2 as part of the network will become clearer.
We want senior GPEW people and HS2 Ltd to meet so that the Greens can get a proper understanding of what HS2 is, how it is being built and how it is mitigating its environmental impact, to act as a counterweight to the criticism that comes from single-issue groups such as Woodland Trust and FoE which currently inform the party’s current position.
We want GPEW’s rail policy development process to include expert industry input, which has been sadly lacking. We applaud the different approach the Scottish Greens have taken—bringing in rail industry expertise, resulting in an ambitious, coherent and deliverable set of policies, clearly set out in their Rail for All document (https://greens.scot/sites/default/files/Rail%20For%20All.pdf).
We want the currently-confused policy position of GPEW to be tidied up. At the moment the formal party policy is in favour of a north-south high-speed line in principle, yet later party statements all oppose such a line in practice. It is not at all clear what the actual party position is. In particular, we would like a formal revisit of the discussion that led to the first party conference statement opposing HS2, in 2011: we believe that was based on an analysis that, even if correct at the time, is now completely out of date.
We want the party’s policy to change to one of conditional support for HS2, with the conditions we’ve outlined above. There is much that the party will still need to campaign on – most importantly, for the broader transport policy context which will make HS2 a success: addressing the artificially-low cost of flying and driving; subsidising rail fares; limiting airport capacity; integrating long-distance and local public transport; regional control of local train services; best use of the freed-up capacity on the existing railway; better mitigation of habitat impacts; better integration with active transport; additional rail network enhancements such as electrification and capacity improvements. With a broadly supportive policy, Greens at a local and national level will have a much better platform to engage with HS2 constructively – as, for example, local councillors in Solihull are already doing, but without any support from their national party. As it stands, Greens can’t speak with a strong voice on any of these issues. By failing to think globally, we’re unable to act locally.