Why we're supporting high-speed rail done right

Posted by jamie — 17 January 2012 at 1:18pm - Comments
Speeding train
All rights reserved. Credit: Victor Svensson
HS2 is great in principle, but the plan has plenty of holes

Last week, the government gave the thumbs-up to the first phase of the new high-speed rail network (aka HS2). Since then, debate between those for and against has filled the media including a piece in the Mail claiming Greenpeace is opposed to the project. We're not of course, but it does need correcting.

So: we do support high-speed rail in principle. If you were an Airplotter, you'll know it's one of the main alternatives we used to show how the case for a third runway at Heathrow didn't stack up. Developed properly, HS2 could start the move towards a rail system that got people away from short-haul flights and onto trains, with enormous potential to reduce carbon emissions.

But (and it's a big but) it needs to be part of a wider transport strategy across the country. One train line between London and Birmingham isn't going to address the various transport issues we have, and the plans released by the Department of Transport are lacking in several key areas.

For instance, will it actually reduce CO2 emissions? It's hard to be sure, as the plans don't really make a substantial case for this. If more freight transport goes by conventional rail, that could be a big saving on emissions. Building the new line will free up capacity on existing lines, and lack of room has often been an argument against sending freight by rail instead of road or air.

Again, it depends how the new line will work as part of the wider transport network.

On the flipside, it's not clear where the passengers for HS2 will come from. If they're using the train when they would have flown or driven big cars instead, that could bring down overall emissions. But if they're new passengers who wouldn't have travelled otherwise, then the number of passenger journeys will increase along with emissions.

Neither of these questions (along with many others) are fully tackled by the government's plans. It's because of these gaps that Greenpeace, along with many other organisations, has signed up to the Right Lines Charter. The charter supports high-speed rail with various conditions: that it's part of a national transport strategy, that there's proper public participation in the scheme, and that impacts on the local environment and communities are minimised.

The case we made during the third runway campaign in favour of high-speed rail still stands, but now it's becoming a reality the details of the government's plan need to be assessed. At the moment, they're falling short of what's really needed.

Sorry for the delay in responding - when things get busy here, it's difficult to keep track of everything.

But I'm afraid I can't give a yes or no answer to the question, as there are many other things that would need to be addressed before Greenpeace would support (or not) any particular route. Like (as mentioned above) a national transport strategy covering aviation as well as trains and road vehicles, with clear evidence of reductions in carbon emissions. Without that as a starting point, questions about the specific route are difficult to answer.

Our head of policy gave me a useful analogy: it's like someone deciding to build a house next to yours and asking whether you'd be in favour of a green front door - you might be or you might not, but there are some more basic questions you'd want answering first.

I know that doesn't answer your question in the way you'd hoped, but I hope that explains how things currently stand.

About Jamie

I'm a forests campaigner working mainly on Indonesia. My personal mumblings can be found @shrinkydinky.

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