Speed may not be all as rail experts remain divided over staying on track

Montage: Graeme Bandeira
Montage: Graeme Bandeira
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With further doubt being cast on the planned HS2 rail link this week, Sebastian Oake asks do we really need faster travel?

YOU could be forgiven for thinking that everything about HS2 – the link proposed from London to cities like Leeds – must have been said by now but there’s one aspect that’s received little attention.

It’s something that most commentators have accepted as a given, something not open to debate. It’s the notion that it must be a good thing to help people get from A to B more quickly.

Some people think it isn’t. Lift the lid on this question and you’ll uncover a surprising split in the environmental movement with “deep green” thinkers at odds with mainstream organisations like Campaign for Better Transport and Friends of the Earth.

At a national level, both these London-based groups are supportive of the extension of High Speed Rail, albeit with caveats.

Andrew Allen, spokesperson for Campaign for Better Transport, which counts Sheffield-born Michael Palin as its president, says: “In principle, we support the investment in High Speed Rail – it would give us important new capacity, support the long-term growth of our railways, help reduce car use and provide an alternative to carbon-intensive domestic air travel.”

Friends of the Earth senior campaigner Jane Thomas adds: “We should be creating faster, better rail travel rather than building more roads and expanding airports.”

In both cases, the thinking is the same. Something needs to be done to help people get around more and trains are better than cars or planes.

But some say there are real downsides to what amounts to ever-greater mobility, where people and goods move round faster and farther. The obvious one is increased emissions of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels.

One high profile critic of HS2 is Dr Mayer Hillman, senior fellow emeritus at the Policy Studies Institute at the University of Westminster.

“I have been outraged ever since HS2 was first proposed,” he says. “HS2 can only make climate change worse. It is against the national interest.”

He rejects the notion that rail is automatically a green form of transport.

“Trains travelling at HS2 speeds rather than at current InterCity speeds would not only be vastly more energy-intensive but would also encourage more and lengthier journeys.”

And he says there is little chance of renewable energy making a meaningful contribution.

“That could only be possible by transferring it away from other sectors of the economy,” he says.

“We cannot continue deceiving ourselves – long-distance journeys by rail are too profligate in their use of fossil fuels. So, what is the logic of planning for more, faster rail travel?”

Dr Hillman comes from the no-nonsense school of environmentalism.

His fire and brimstone approach is not to everyone’s liking and he is sometimes seen as a thorn in the side of those environmental groups that perhaps adopt a lighter shade of green.

But he is not alone. He is joined in opposing HS2 by Mike Geddes, honorary professor at the University of Warwick and an expert in the field of public policy. He is involved in the Stop HS2 campaign and is scathing about claims the new railway line would help regenerate the North, pointing out that the research consensus is that the biggest beneficiary would be London. He is also concerned about carbon emissions, throwing up some new angles.

“If HS2 takes people from internal flights, what then happens to those airport slots now freed up?” he asks. “They could go to long haul flights. And given there will be very few, widely spaced stations, car traffic to and from stations could rise markedly. I don’t think we can say HS2 would be a plus in terms of carbon.”

There is another outcome from increased travel that worries some. They see High Speed Rail as yet another gear change towards “hypermobility” – a whirlwind of movement in which distance becomes no object and no regard is paid to impact on the environment or our quality of life. In jargon, it’s centralisation, even globalisation, at the expense of localism.

The Green Party has long championed meeting local needs locally. It is also against HS2. “The fundamental thing has to be local production for local needs with supply chains as short as possible,” says Andrew Cooper. He is a Green Party councillor at Kirklees and a candidate for Yorkshire and Humber in next year’s European elections.

“We shouldn’t force people to travel farther either. A centralised approach means we’re hurtling people to one part of the country – London.

“We need good local transport links, rather than a grandiose scheme linking people in the North with what’s in the South.

“But there’s a dearth of investment in local transport – I know because I travel on Low Speed 1, the Penistone line between Sheffield and Huddersfield.”

Some might say we just haven’t spent enough time thinking what might be actually needed, especially further into the future. Ian Roderick is director of the Schumacher Institute for Sustainable Systems in Bristol. He believes HS2 could be speeding in the wrong direction.

“Over the next 30-40 years we’re going to see quite considerable change. Around 2030 all sorts of crises could be coming together – the effects of climate change could be felt more seriously, we may have resource depletion and there could be strain on food supplies. It’s all building up into a bottleneck.

“We ought not to be pushing forward with normal economic growth. Things are going to shift. Moving further to a system where we’re moving people quickly up and down the country is not the right direction.

“We need to slow down with a slower mode of living and local focus. This is a very different approach to ‘let’s travel from North to South as fast as we can’.”

Some people might argue that less travel, particularly leisure travel, might condemn us to duller lives. Against that it’s worth remembering that mobility on the scale we see today only really started in the 1960s. There are indications that before then people were just as content with their lives, if not more so.

Professor Richard Layard from the London School of Economics and Political Science has done pioneering research into what really makes us happy. In his landmark book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, he argues that it’s not wealth, possessions and extravagant lifestyles that make us happy.

It’s more the strength of relationships, friends and family, supportive communities, security and a feeling of contributing to society. Long distance travel is not on the list. Perhaps more important, could a world in which mobility becomes ever greater, still give us the things that apparently really matter?

“Some people might place a question mark over whether ever increasing movement makes sense,” notes Prof Layard.

“There has been a great deal of sacrifice in terms of family cohesion from all this mobility. And peace of mind has been lost to some extent due to people being less rooted than they were.”

In the world of today, it might not be fashionable to argue for slower rather than faster, for local rather than global.

But in the deep uncertainty that is the future, who can say what might become the norm and what might become irrelevant? One thing’s for sure, if environmentalists and academics, with all their understanding of what matters, can’t agree on whether HS2 is good or bad, no wonder the rest of us can’t.

Counting the carbon cost

The United Nation’s climate panel announced recently it is 95 per cent certain that humans are the dominant cause of global warming.

The UK has committed itself to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.

Between 1990 and 2010 greenhouse gas emissions from UK transport increased by 11 per cent.

Over the same period, the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions fell by 21 per cent (attributed by environmentalists to increased power generation from gas instead of coal).

Each person in the UK has a carbon footprint of over 10 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. Estimates of a ‘safe’ level range from 2.5 tonnes down to zero.