“Rail is climate infrastructure”. This is how US Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez put it when hosting a press conference at Washington’s Union station in June 16th. And she is bang on the money.
“It would be good to hear UK politicians pick up on this perspective: we are much better placed than the USA to use our national rail system to help decarbonise the transport sector. All the more so with HS2 – an electrified railway that adds capacity in spades – now firmly in sight.” reflects Greengauge 21’s Director Jim Steer.
HS2 is part of the current Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda. And as long ago as May 2013, England’s core cities (Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield) said in a joint letter to a national newspaper that:
“Research has shown that over-reliance on the capital city is bad for national economics. England needs these eight core cities to succeed. Unlocking growth relies on rebalancing the economy of Britain, which HS2 will help to do, bringing regeneration benefits outside the South East.”
Of course Glasgow and Edinburgh are set to gain too, and proportionately in line with northern English cities if the Union Connectivity Review concludes improvements are needed to the rail network across the Anglo-Scottish border. Cardiff too could readily be added to the list of HS2 beneficiary cities if the proposals in Greengauge 21’s ‘Beyond HS2’ report are taken forward. HS2 can and should be for England, Wales and Scotland.
In a time of climate crisis
No doubt the leaders of these cities would wish to have seen more rapid progress with building HS2 in the intervening eight years. But at last, major construction is fully underway. And while there has been extensive reporting of environmental protests, much less is heard about the extensive programme of environmental remediation. Following the success of HS1’s programme across Kent and Essex 15 years ago, HS2 contractors have already planted 700,000 trees and created over 100 wildlife sites along the route between the West Midlands and London. The wildlife sites represent a mix of different habitat types, including grassland, woodland, scrub and ponds, and are already beginning to be havens for wildlife. The project is also providing the opportunity to create new outdoor public spaces, such as at the two new HS2 viaducts to be constructed near Coleshill, and further north, at Chattle Hill near the Water Orton viaducts, where there are plans for a ‘blossom walk’ to link to a new community orchard and allotment areas.
HS2 offers economic regeneration in a time of climate crisis. Rail provides a safer and much greener alternative to road based travel (and to short-haul aviation). The challenge is that road use is already back to pre-Covid levels. Achieving a re-balancing of the use of transport modes, favouring those that come closest to offering zero-carbon emission travel is essential. Further electrification of the national rail network is undoubtedly needed. So too is the capacity to accommodate additional rail demand.
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