Wednesday, 11 January 2012

The Age of the Train

The Government announces that High Speed 2 will go ahead...

Britain needs a fast and integrated rail network. It lags far behind its nearest neighbours, largely due to Thatcher privatising the railways in the 1980s when other nations were investing. To her, spending money on roads was investment, spending on railways was subsidy. Is this finally The Age of the Train? In a country almost 600 miles long by 300 miles wide, the 90 miles that High Speed 2 (HS2) represents will not make a difference for the vast majority of rail users.

For the record, I haven't really done any research for this post, its only a bit of fun. I don't have the time or inclination to wade through the volumes of reports, assessments and evaluations that are available.

An extra 8 miles of the route will be in tunnels to mitigate environmental concerns...

However, construction of the railway in tunnels has a significant environmental impact. A typical high speed rail tunnel will have an excavated diameter of around 9m for each track generating approximately 125 cubic metres or 250 tonnes of spoil for every metre in length. Eight miles is almost 13 km resulting in 1.6million cubic metres (3.2 million tonnes) of spoil to be disposed of in a less scenic landfill site. Or to use more journalistic measurement units, 650 Olympic Swimming Pools - remember that when you are watching the games this summer. With a typical 8 wheel tipper truck carrying 20 tonnes of spoil, 162,000 truck loads will need to leave the site and return empty. Then there are all the material deliveries to line the tunnel and the ongoing energy requirements to run the tunnel, for example ventilation, lighting, drainage pumps and so on.

A further 56 miles will be in deep cuttings to minimise the visual impact...

But what is the most distinguishing feature of a cutting? It is lower than the adjacent ground. And water runs to the lowest point. These deep cuttings will change the hydrology of the area by acting as a 56 mile long drain across the landscape. Water that runs down the hillside will be intercepted and drained away, probably using pumps as the track gradient will be very shallow and we don't want to flood our nice new railway. So land that is on the lower side of the railway will be starved of its water supply. Farmers will need to irrigate more. Water drained from the line will need to be disposed of somewhere without increasing flood risks locally.

Traditional railway cuttings have been constructed as steeply as possible to minimise land take but the result is that they often need maintained and vegetation needs cut back to reduce the risk of trees falling on the track.  A more modern approach is likely to be similar to motorways with wide flat sides barren of any vegetation larger than grass so overall width for a 4m deep cutting could be 30m or more. It wouldn't be worth attempting to calculate the volume of spoil that this will generate.

Then the there is the Construction Cost...

The first phase of HS2 from London to Birmingham has been estimated to cost £17,000,000,000. The zeros are more effective than billions, I feel. That is £75,555 for every metre of track. One pace. Ridiculous. The 186 mile route between Paris and Strasbourg cost US$7.7bn - longer, cheaper and part of a network, not just a single line.

But it will be worth it once it is running...

If government predictions are true, tens of thousands of people will commute from Birmingham to London, providing a cheap source of labour for Londoners.  It isn't going to work the other way is it? People won't live in expensive London homes then pay thousands of pounds a year to commute to Birmingham to work for lower wages than they would get in the capital, are they? So what of these thousands of extra people that London will need to support - water supplies in the south east are struggling to cope with existing demand and sewerage infrastructure is struggling. Perhaps Brummies will bring their own water and hold it in until they go back north...

To reiterate, I am not opposed to high speed intercity rail but it needs to be integrated with quick local connections, the sort of local schemes that won't happen if all the funding is spent on HS2.  The budget for building this new section of track is about four times Network Rail's annual expenditure on maintaining, operating and improving the whole UK rail network. So much more could be done with this money, to improve connections between and into more than two cities.

HS2 is a peacock project that will waste lots of public money and deliver limited benefits for development, travel and the environment. It is not the right project.

PS It is not in my backyard so I'm not a NIMBY.

1 comment:

  1. It's just typical of the current trend for projects that seem to cut carbon but are a) not well thought out and b) will have a detrimental effect on the natural environment.