High speed rail

Last updated: November 2009



Environmental groups remain to be convinced by plans for a new high-speed rail network in the UK says Simon Birch.

Trains are ace aren’t they? Like Fairtrade coffee or organic cotton jeans, trains are widely viewed as being unquestionably Good Things for both people and the planet. It’s been interesting then to get the reactions from greenie groups to the recent flurry of headlines that have been shouting about plans for a new high-speed rail network in the UK.

The plan, delivered by Network Rail in the late summer, proposes a glittering £34 billion new high-speed railway line to be built by 2020 which would link Scotland and the north of England with London. Journey times from Glasgow and Manchester to the capital would apparently be slashed by nearly half. Plus we’re promised a similar dramatic reduction of carbon emissions as people switch from the car to the train as well as a boost to regional economies. Crucially, the scheme would also hook up with the current high-speed link to the continent from London thereby offering a credible low-carbon alternative to short-haul European flights.

The Network Rail announcement came hot on the heels of the government’s plan for a more modest high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham.

So with the UK looking like it could finally be catching up with the likes of France and Spain who are steaming ahead with their own high-speed rail networks, what’s not to like about high-speed rail given its much-touted economic and environmental benefits?


More details please

“In principle high-speed rail can play an important role in a low-carbon transport system,” accepts Vicky Wyatt, Greenpeace transport campaigner. “However, we would want to see detailed analysis of the carbon cost of building such a network before making a final judgement.”

Wyatt isn’t alone in sitting on the fence as she’s joined by Friends Of the Earth transport campaigner Richard Dyer. “Our current position on high-speed rail is to wait and see, as we remain to be convinced that high-speed rail will actually deliver an overall reduction in carbon emissions from transport,” says Dyer. “The big question is whether the new capacity of any high-speed line would simply generate new journeys rather than achieve an absolute cut from people abandoning the car and plane in favour of the high-speed train which is what you’d want to see happen.”

“With projected journey times of just over an hour to London, will we see people starting to commute from Manchester?” asks Dyer.

And what about the impact that any new rail link would have on our countryside? “Just because it’s a railway rather than a road wouldn’t alter the level of analysis we’d subject it to,” says Dyer firmly.


What about local transport solutions?

So whilst FoE and Greenpeace have yet to make up their minds about high-speed rail, Jason Torrance from Sustrans is clear where his organisation stands on the issue.

“It’s undeniable that the vast sums of money that are being planned to be spent on high-speed trains could be more effectively spent on improving local transport solutions for local communities,” states Torrance.  “This would help reduce reliance on the car and reduce carbon emissions.”

However, Hassard Stacpoole from the Association of Train Operating Companies believes that it isn’t simply a case of building a high-speed line at the expense of improving local transport needs.

“The planned high-speed rail route would take pressure off the west coast line which we predict will be full by 2016 and allow local services to be developed,” says Stacpoole. “By encouraging people to take the high-speed route rather than the existing network, there’ll be an increase in the capacity for the local network. We need both high-speed rail and improved local rail services.”

But what about local transport campaigners, do they think that the price tag of £34 billion for the high-speed rail would be money well spent?

One of the local transport solutions that Jason Torrance refers to is the closed Woodhead rail tunnel between Sheffield and Manchester whose re-opening is being campaigned for by the Save the Woodhead Tunnel group.  Given that it’s been estimated that it would cost £300 million to re-open the tunnel to trains – a fraction of the cost of the proposed new high-speed line – does the local campaign group believe that the high-speed line should be given the go-ahead?

“Whilst we have concerns about the carbon cost of constructing the high-speed rail link and its potential local environmental impact, in principle we support the project,” says Jonathan Atkinson from the Save the Woodhead Tunnel campaign group. “If we’re serious about the need to reduce the number of short-haul flights then we need high-speed rail.”


First published in Ethical Consumer 121, November/December 2009