Science & Environment

Harrabin's Notes: Fast train

In his regular column, BBC environment analyst Roger Harrabin looks at the environmental issues surrounding the proposed high-speed rail project in the UK.


Image caption Rail campaigners said money for the channel tunnel link could be better spent on the existing network

Question: What is the link between the UK's proposed HS2 high-speed rail line from London to Birnimgham and the Narmada Dam project in western India?

Answer: They are both controversial, both claim huge and questionable benefits, both aspire to the sort of finance that would be denied to small schemes collectively offering equivalent outcomes, both are a gleam in the eye of politicians, both in some way claim to represent "progress".

I visited the Narmada River several years ago - before the rising waters swamped the ancient riverside temple which attracted thousands of people from aross India for an extraordinary religious festival every year.

Perhaps the dam will fulfil its objectives one day - it's too soon to say. But I remember the tales of corruption and kickbacks surrounding the dam's construction, the heroically improbable claims of benefit to far-flung farmers, and - especially this - that a report at the time revealed that India had 100 big dams in need of repair… but couldn't fund the work.

In the case of the high-speed line from St Pancras to the channel tunnel. Rail campaigners complained that money would be better spent on expanding the existing rail network. But the HS1 was won on the Agincourt Principle - the French have got one, so if we don't get one they'll laugh at us.

Reaping rewards

The proposal also adduced huge re-generation benefits to Stratford and East London. And, the Stratford Station did indeed fortuitously prove significant for the UK's Olympic bid.

But critics complain that the broader benefit to the community has not materialised, and say rich weekenders have reaped most benefit from the line. Paris trains race through Stratford without stopping and Stratford International Station has been tauntingly re-named Stratford Regional. Even Greengauge, the pro high-speed-rail group refer to Stratford station as a white elephant.

So now to HS2 - proposed as part of the coalition's airports strategy to divert people away from inter-city flying in the UK after they had scrapped plans for a third runway at Heathrow. The response from green groups to this proposal ranges from sceptical to hostile.

The Green Party says HS2 trains would burn 50% more energy than a Eurostar train and twice as much as an inter city train. It supports high speed rail in principle but says the case here has not been made.

The Campaign for Better Transport said it would be preferable to cut fares for all passengers than build a line to benefit the rich few. It fears that the scheme will divert funds from more cost-effective schemes to upgrade the general rail network to the benefit of many more passengers.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England said the lack of consultation over carving a line through the Chilterns - an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty - may breach the Aarhus Convention on public participation. The scheme, it said, was a train wreck.

A government spokesman told BBC News that this first proposed leg of a UK high-speed network to Birmingham was not being "badged" as an environmental scheme.

The main aims were to "spread connectivity and prosperity and reduce journey times in a broadly carbon-neutral way" (the local environmental objections would be dealt with by using existing transport corridors and by putting the HS2 in tunnels or cutting for most of the journey through the Chilterns).

Job creation

But the broad principle here reminds me of the old debate about job creation through road-building. "Build a road and the jobs will come," was an adage from local councils in the 80s and 90s.

Detailed analysis of that axiom by the government's advisory committee Sactra called its logic into question. Certainly, my own home city of Coventry enjoys excellent "connectivity" at the centre of England.

The lines running across any road or rail map intersect at the spot where Lady Godiva used equine transport to make a protest about government, and since improvements to the West Coast main line Coventry is just an hour away from London. Has prosperity spread to Coventry from London thanks to all this connectivity? It has not.

Yet HS2 has backing from all the major parties (although Labour's support has appeared a little more wobbly over the past few weeks).

The lobby group Greengauge distils the arguments. It says the travel market is continuing to expand thanks to population growth driven by increasing life expectancy and immigration. This will necessitate more capacity than can be delivered by an improved network without HS2.

It says analysis of existing high-speed (300km/h) trains shows energy consumption levels similar or just 10% higher than the best performing of today‟s 200km/h intercity trains. And it maintains that the carbon advantage of rail over air and private car travel will continue as high-speed rail is introduced.

The arguments will continue. But two factors are likely to prove decisive. First is whether the line will attract funding, especially at a time when cash is so very short. The second is political vanity. When the catcalls of the electorate eventually hound you out of political office it must be nice if you've left something behind to show the grandchildren.