John Downer, Director of High Speed Rail Group explains why HS2 will be essential to reaching net zero, and catalysing our green recovery…

Although in recent months the COVID-19 pandemic has rightly dominated headlines, the environmental challenges we face have not gone away. High-speed rail has an important role ahead, through the green recovery and desire to ‘build back better.’ Via HS2, high-speed rail is already showing a way to green delivery of Government goals as outlined in the consultation on the Transport Decarbonisation Plan.

At a recent High Speed Rail Group event I hosted with future mobility expert Professor Jillian Anable, the academic described how we are at a ‘pivotal moment’. Prior to the current crisis, strides were being made on decarbonisation, transport and levelling up. Now, Anable says, we are faced with two parallel crises, COVID-19 and the climate crisis.

Amounting to 28 per cent of UK domestic emissions in 2018, greenhouse gas emissions from surface transport are now greater than any other sector. The current COVID-19 crisis has led people and businesses to rethink how they move. Learning lessons from this can undoubtedly help address the climate emergency.

At the beginning of the lockdown, the Department for Transport set out the climate challenge through a consultation on how on to create a radical Transport Decarbonisation Plan (TDP). Outlining for the first time a new goal of modal shift away from the car and making public transport the first choice for daily travel, it represents a huge departure from decades of previous policy. In High Speed Rail Group’s own contribution to the TDP consultation, we emphasise the role high-speed rail will play in the environmental recovery as we head towards net zero, and the fundamental change needed to the way people and freight move around.

Achieving net zero will require big changes to the way we travel. High-speed rail is particularly critical in decarbonising long-distance travel, and the ever increasing leisure travel segment. No other mode, including electric vehicles, can achieve this.

In the movement to transport decarbonisation, reducing aviation emissions is the greatest challenge. 

Domestic UK flights have reduced in 2020 as a result of the virus, and this presents a fortuitous opportunity for transformative rail upgrades to be designed to create a long term carbon beneficial domestic modal shift. We can be inspired here by the success of HS1, which has reduced CO2 emissions by the equivalent of 60,000 short-haul flights every year. If we now look at HS2 and its associated schemes, this establishes both new capacity and frees up capacity on existing lines, a win-win in making rail travel more attractive. We believe that only HS2 can deliver this capacity without causing a decade of disruption to our existing train services.

Tackling freight emissions is critical too. A much larger role for rail freight, integrated with urban consolidation centres, is essential and this in turn requires high-speed rail to take fast trains off existing lines to free up freight capacity. Research from Midlands Connect shows that through HS2, capacity will be created for 144 extra freight trains per day, which could carry over 2.5 million lorries’ worth of cargo each year. Transporting freight by rail rather than on our roads produces 76 per cent less CO2.

But it is not just the carbon benefits once HS2 is up and running that are significant. Companies contracted to deliver HS2, and the wider high-speed rail supply chain are already making significant achievements in driving down design and construction carbon. HS2 is creating innovation across supply chains, helping reduce its carbon footprint below previous forecasts. Initial estimates of the carbon impact during HS2’s construction phase were much higher than what has been the reality. For example, one of the main contractors, the Align Joint Venture, is delivering early works already 13 per cent under target for carbon emissions. Outperformance of initial forecasts during the construction phase of the scheme are likely to be 20 to 30 per cent. This is demonstrative of the industry’s commitment to make HS2 the greenest major infrastructure project the country has ever seen.

Similarly, sustainability has been at the centre of HS2 station design. The development of Birmingham Interchange Station has seen a focus on sustainability, maximising natural daylight and ventilation and a station roof design which can capture and reuse rainwater. As such, the station has become the first in the world to be awarded the BREEAM outstanding certification for its design, the world’s leading sustainability assessment method for infrastructure. BREEAM status is also the goal for the new station at Birmingham Curzon Street.

Beyond this, new high-speed railways will be designed to be more ‘climate resilient.’ 2020 is set to be the hottest year on record and, even if the international community manages to deliver sustained radical reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, temperatures will increase until 2050. Being almost 200 years old in places, the rail network is particularly at risk from extreme weather such as flooding, sea level rise and landslips.

Going forward, high-speed rail will be the most climate resilient mode of transport available. The Committee on Climate Change highlights the need to plan strategically for at least a 2oC rise and to analyse risks from 4oC rise. High-speed rail plays a key role in providing resilient connections, for instance from 2013 to 2018, a total of just nine trains on HS1 were delayed due to severe weather and seasonal challenges like leaf fall. With more extreme weather ahead, high-speed rail’s benefits will be even more valuable. Delivering HS2 in full and in turn creating a national high-speed real network will be essential for resilient travel in the future.

As the Government seeks to put green considerations at the centre of the COVID-19 recovery, and the wider policy landscape in the years ahead, it is important that the environmental impact of HS2 is considered in this wider context. Not only will it engender the modal shift of people and freight that is essential in reaching net zero goals, but high-speed rail can catalyse green design and construction for big infrastructure projects.

High Speed Rail Group intends to remain a prominent industry voice – demonstrating that HS2, and eventually a national high-speed rail network, will play an essential role in facilitating the UK reaching its net zero target in 2050.

John Downer is Director of High Speed Rail Group.

An environmental scientist, John’s first career tackled climate change through smarter waste and resources management (he is a Fellow of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management). Now in his second career, in rail since 2014, and as a Board Director of HSRG from 2017, his interdisciplinary thinking has drawn him to push sector decarbonisation.