Tuesday, 2 March 2010

HS2 Conference Reflections

I have previously written about our views on High Speed Rail, but we seem to be in a real minority of people with anything to say other than what a great opportunity it is.

Last week I attended a conference where people who were mainly enthusiasts for the project were being encouraged by Mike Whitby and other interested parties in becoming even more dedicated to the cause. There was almost universal acceptance of the claims that HS2 will bring huge amounts of money into the West Midlands economy and that this was some panacea to cure all our economic and transport ills.

The phrase that everyone kept repeating was that we've been given the ball and it's ours to drop, as though we're being given the most wonderful present. This ignores many previous transport schemes which show that new transport infrastrcuture into deprived areas tends to suck people and money out as they can travel away from the area to work, rather than bringing investment in. We don't want Birmingham to be turned into a distant commuter city for the South East with a rise in house prices, but no real improvement in local connectivity and employment.

One question was asked by Kevin Chapman of Campaign for Better Transport about whether this incredibly expensive high profile scheme will take all the money that can be invested in transport infrastructure away from local projects, especially in such difficult economic times. The answer came back in the room that this was not the case and that the money, as with HS1 and the eurostar route, comes from "a different pot". However, as this article shows, projects to get traditional rail improvements done are already struggling to get funding. Also, in the Birmingham Post last week, Jerry Blackett tells of a very poignant encounter with a young person from a disadvantaged area of Birmingham who can't believe £250 million is being spent on making Chilterns journeys to London 20 minutes quicker when there are people in this city who don't even have a home to live in. How many people are really going to benefit from HS2 compared to the amount of money spent? Is it not just going to be the business elite who rake in some lucrative contracts, while most ordinary people in Birmingham and especially the rest of the West Midlands gain no benefit whatsoever?

It was claimed that HS2 will increase capacity for providing improved local services by taking trains off the mainline and yet not affect the standard of provision on routes from places like Coventry and Wolverhampton (concern over this was raised by Gerald Kells from CPRE). Is it just me who can't see how that works? Either they take faster trains off the lines feeding other towns in the area and make those slower and less frequent, or there won't be any extra capacity, surely.

I really found all the figures given in this conference as unbelievable as those the airport bandies around about the wealth and jobs that would be created by expanding their activities, extending the runway etc. Here is the article published in the local press which says that 42 000 jobs could be created. It is not actually as outrageous as some of the airport's claims, but still, as one of the people there confessed, job creation figures cannot be believed as there would have been zero unemployment long ago if they were true just from projects completed over the last decade.

BIA are desperate for HS2 to call at Birmingham International as well as the city centre, but this would once again go against all the claims of creating emploment opportunities in the most environmentally beneficial areas (i.e. city centres). What we would get is a parkway station causing more pressure to develop greenbelt and attracting more traffic to this already crowded road system.

It also makes the idea of our airport becoming "London Elmdon" more likely as BIA takes the strain from the South East's airport's (45 minutes from central London) and local people are subject to more air and noise pollution as air travel is allowed to grow unchecked.

The claims of HS2 reducing CO2 emissions are extremely optimistic at best. The loading ratio predicted, based on Eurostar services, which would allow them to operate only using the same amount of energy per passenger as slower trains is very unlikely as it would require large numbers of people travelling on these routes who are prepared to pay higher prices. Then, there is the carbon involved in building and maintaining the network, which is also considerably higher than for traditional trains. The savings only really stack up on the longer routes to Scotland over a long period, whereas we really need urgent action to cut CO2 now and this means the opposite will be true.

Surely, it's better to encourage people to travel less or reduce the need to travel, as this is the most benefical policy carbon-wise. I asked this question at the conference, but nobody wanted to answer it, instead concentrating on tokenistic ways of conserving energy and generating green energy.

I have a lot of reservations over whether building HS2 is really going to benefit the people who need to benefit from improved public transport. They are the ones who have no access to a car and suffer from poor provision locally, whose streets are clogged up with too many cars and those whose livelihoods are threatened by climate change all over the world and who need us to make urgent cuts in CO2 emissions now. Unless that is the case, I can't see why we are planning to throw billions of pounds at this scheme, when there are better ways of spending money to improve everyone's lives.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

For the new route to be the London end of a route that can also go to Leeds and to Scotland, the station has to be Birmingham Outskirts, a junction. To link to local train services, the extra trains ought to run to Birmingham New Street - but they cannot as that station is full. To re-configure the local rail network to link to the new Outskirts station, will be quite a task.

Clare Anne said...

While I like the idea of HS2 in theory - creating jobs, bringing people into Birmingham, getting across the country in no time at all - I can't help think it's costing an awful lot of money to fix something that isn't broken!