The real shock of the latest report into High Speed 2 (HS2) by the Lords is the fact that the key questions from their 2015 report have not been answered. We have already spent billions, holes have been dug, but this Parliamentary scrutiny body is complaining that the government has been unwilling, or unable, to come up with answers about the project over the last four years.
With the government-commissioned report due out soon and a decision due in February, this is a crucial time for Greens to lobby their MPs and make the case for the environment. When Phase 1 of HS2 was initially proposed, 19 ancient woodlands were due to face direct impacts. With time and further route refinements, this number has risen to 34 ancient woodlands. Over the entire scheme, at least 108 ancient woodlands will be subject to damage and loss from the current route, resulting in a crucial loss of biodiversity.
Lord Berkeley’s damning minority report has already raised a long list of question marks about the finances and how HS2 impacts on any plans for other rail investment.
In 2015 the Lords asked the government to consider whether investment in rail infrastructure in the north should be prioritised over HS2. But no assessment of the relative merits was carried out and over £4 billion has been spent already on the first phase of HS2, which will run between Birmingham and London and has little benefit for northern cities.
The second phase of the project, which will improve journey times between Leeds and Sheffield and alleviate pressure on some local services in the cities the new line will serve, awaits Parliamentary approval and is not expected to be complete until at least 2033.
In the meantime, even the big cities like Manchester are suffering from a lack of new investment. There has been a doubling of demand for local rail travel into central Manchester in the last 15 years but only a 50 per cent increase in passenger capacity.
The Lords are far from convinced by the government’s claim that the whole HS2 project will be built within the £55.7-billion budget. Sir Terry Morgan, the former chairman of HS2 Ltd, told them that “nobody knows” what the final cost of the project will be. They are concerned that if costs overrun on the first phase of the project, there will be insufficient funding for the second phase and the northern sections of the new railway will not be built.
A simple solution would be to reduce the speed of the trains, as that enables the engineers to include more bends and have less tunnels. They would probably be able to lessen the impacts on ancient woodlands and other precious environmental sites. The maximum speed of 360 kilometres per hour is faster than any railway operates in the world at present. Despite the escalating costs and the Lords calling for an assessment of lower-speed alternatives in 2015, this has not been carried out.
The Lords also explain that the big concern is overcrowding on commuter trains, rather than long-distance trains. HS2 only provides a solution to capacity problems at Euston and one proposal is to shift the terminus to Old Oak Common. With Crossrail 2 due to provide a fast west-east link between Old Oak Common and central London, this seems sensible.
With the final costs now put at £106 billion, HS2 needs to be stopped and Parliament needs to get some answers about how the money might be spent more effectively, without the huge environmental impacts.