It always seemed unlikely that anything could prove as controversial as Brexit but the new high speed rail infrastructure of HS2 is certainly making a bid for the title.
The government's decision to give the line the green light has produced a torrent of both plaudits and abuse in turn from freight and environmental groups, unions and the motoring lobby alike.
First the praise. Unsurprisingly rail freight company GB Railfreight (GBRf) has expressed both ‘delight and relief’ that HS2 from London to Birmingham is to proceed following the publication of the Oakervee Review, itself a matter of contention. Hardly unexpected praise from a company preparing to support the sites construction logistics, including removing spoil and waste, and delivering inbound materials.
Make no mistake this was a close run thing, the government’s assent comes as protestors prepare the battle lines for the 108 ancient woodland sites set to be destroyed or devastated by the railway. Even the controversial Oakervee review, a body which dismissed all those on its own board, except the man whose name it bears, before it was actually finished, could only say ministers should proceed ‘on balance’ as ‘the original rationale still holds’.
John Smith, Managing Director of GB Railfreight, who submitted a response to the Oakervee Review, said: "I am delighted and relieved the Government has given the green light to the project. HS2 will be the first new railway constructed north of London for over a century, creating much needed capacity and connections across the North and Midlands. There is no other viable alternative to the project, as both the Oakervee Review and the Prime Minister have acknowledged.
“By signing off on the scheme, the Government has committed to expanding capacity beyond just passenger services. The decision will free up extra capacity on the West Coast Mainline which will help the growth of rail freight, supporting economic growth across the UK and helping the delivery of the Government’s targets to decarbonise the economy by supporting the shift of freight from road to more sustainable rail services.
“Delivering HS2 will, in the long term, support the UK’s regional cities and towns to prosper and connect to other surrounding areas. I applaud the Prime Minister for making the right decision rather than delay any further.”
Another outfit to ‘warmly welcome’ the decision is the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT) which said in its professional judgement, HS2 is essential to tackling systemic congestion in the UK transport system. There was however a tinge of caution from CILT. While welcoming the announcements on transport services and infrastructure, it urged the Prime Minister to ensure that investment is also committed to improve the number and size of trains that can operate on existing routes, particularly Trans Pennine.
The M62 is one of the busiest HGV corridors in the country but it is very difficult to move containers arriving at northern ports across the Pennines by rail due to capacity and height restrictions. UK ports and their customers are keen to divert containers off of the M62 and onto the railways, but are currently unable to do so in significant numbers because of increasing infrastructure constraints.
Additionally the government should formally safeguard a significant proportion of the released capacity on Trans Pennine and the north-south routes for rail freight growth, as part of its commitment to modal shift and the achievement of Net Zero by 2050. Also CILT opines that, only with construction of the new infrastructure, can many more people benefit from released capacity on existing routes rather than from HS2/HS3 whilst HS2 Phases 1, 2a and 2b will relieve congestion on the West Coast Main Line, the Midland and East Coast Main Lines.
CILT says it understands that it may take up to 20 years for the full benefit of the new lines to be realised and the potential benefits of HS2 are even greater for freight than passengers. Britain’s manufacturers, retailers and ports are keen to move more of their goods by rail and this will accelerate as the implications of achieving Net Zero carbon by 2050 become clearer.
It envisions a future where electric trains carrying goods on the trunk haul, linking with electric-lorries for final delivery to customers in towns and cities, offers an attractive option for near-full decarbonisation of the supply chain once goods reach the UK. Only however if more capacity for freight is provided on the north-south main lines as well as on east-west routes and particularly that Trans Pennine option.
Meanwhile the Rail Freight Group (RFG), which offered a position paper on HS2 and a submission to Oakervee, strongly welcomed the announcement that HS2 is to be delivered in full, with work on Phases 1 and 2A given the green light to commence immediately and Phase 2B to be developed towards implementation.
It says HS2 has the potential to deliver significant benefits for rail freight by releasing capacity for new services on the existing network. With each freight train producing 76% less CO2 than the equivalent road journey, HS2 can also help decarbonise freight transport by allowing new services to operate, taking more HGVs off the congested road network.
One comment from the RFG is regarding the matter closest to its heart as it queries why to date, the Government has not confirmed how much capacity will be made available for freight once the new line is open. Maggie Simpson RFG Director-General said: "The decision to proceed with HS2 is great news for the freight sector, and for the UK economy. Our members welcome the decision and are keen to see rapid progress in constructing this new railway. Now that the uncertainty is over, Government and HS2 must act to confirm and safeguard released capacity for freight use and to resolve bottlenecks elsewhere on the network where HS2 trains will operate. This is essential to allow freight operators and customers to develop their future plans, and to ensure that the benefits of HS2 can now be delivered in practice."
Another body to offer a cautionary note is the rail union RMT which warned that the Government will fail to hit the HS2 targets set out today if it doesn't address decades of under investment in skills and training as a matter of urgency. It calls for the setting up of a taskforce, with the unions at its core, to map the scale of the deficit and set out a plan of action to deliver HS2 and other projects. RMT General Secretary Mick Cash said; “It is welcome news to finally see the Government recognise the benefits that high speed rail will bring and commit to the HS2 project. However RMT Union is concerned that after decades of under investment in the very skills, training and workforce planning we need to fully deliver the HS2 project that the Government will continue to be asleep at the wheel of this project.
“To address this shortage this Government must urgently set up a skills taskforce with unions at its core to address this deficit and fully deliver the project. If they do that not only will HS2 improve the wider rail network for passengers, HS2 is the once in a generation opportunity to build the jobs, training and apprenticeships to serve the wider rail industry well into the future.”
There were of course many voices of dissent not least environmental organisations with the Wildlife Trust saying the go-ahead meaning ecosystems permanently damaged and irreplaceable habitats destroyed. It calls the plan ‘wildlife extinctions at a local level’ and says taxpayers money spent on restoration is simply wasted with 66,000 supporters, asking the Prime Minister to Stop and Rethink HS2 before the decision was announced.
Greenpeace joined in the protests with a dedicated webpage and collectively saw the Woodland Trust, the Ramblers, WWF, Client Earth, RSPB and the Friends of the Earth all signing up in agreement. As well as the environmental argument, dissent came from the FairFuelUK Campaign, whose founder, Howard Cox, commented: “Cabinet Politicians have ignored economic reality and decided to screw motorists, van drivers and truckers, the very commercial heartbeat of UK PLC. It’s staring everyone in the face, freeing up our motoring economy will benefit the environment and massively boost the economy so much more than one railway line that millions will never ever use.
“Government is blindly to spend £100 billion of tax payers money, getting to Birmingham 30 minutes quicker, generating a quarter of the economic benefit that spending the same amount on new roads across the UK would deliver. Go figure!”
The organisation is fuming saying HS2 and 250 miles of new cycle lanes will now take precedent over repairing or even improving our existing ‘constipated moon cratered roads’. It says when HS2 was costed at £55 billion a few years back, the CEBR, for FairFuelUK, showed spending that ‘same amount’ on roads across all of the UK would benefit the economy 4 times more.
Now with much higher costs Quentin Willson, Motoring Journalist, Broadcaster and Co-Founder of the FairFuelUK Campaign said: “Why are we spending £100 billion on a 250 mph railway when our roads are congested, pock-marked ruins? To really lower carbon emissions spend the money on free-flowing roads, off shore wind, solar and EV charging hubs. There will be no electric revolution if we don’t have roads to travel on.”