September 22, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Naomi Dinmore explores the reasons for both sides of the HS2 environmental debate.

Naomi Dinmore
17th July 2021

Between August 2020 and January 2021, a smattering of pop-up tents sat on the grassy patch in front of Euston station. It was a bizarre sight – a makeshift community of rough sleepers and protestors surrounded by noise, pollution, and city chaos. Treehouses were nestled in branches and people milled between gazeboes. Colourful banners were strewn across the tents and hung off railings. “We are nature defending itself”, they said. “Stop HS2.”

Before their eviction from Euston Square Gardens, this gathering was a part of a national campaign protesting the construction of High-Speed Rail Two (HS2).

With initial aims to reach speeds of 250mph, HS2 was proposed as a state-of-the-art way to cope with increasing capacity on the rail lines connecting London to the North. Over the years, it has switched its narrative from speed to become the “biggest environment project in Britain.” Rail is a low-carbon form of transportation, with the potential effects of reducing traffic congestion, and providing a more environmentally friendly alternative to short-haul flights.

However, HS2 has frequently come under fire for its plans to destroy rural environments – rare areas of ancient woodland and protected wildlife habitats. These areas are essential for mitigating the climate crisis. They act as carbon sinks – meaning they absorb carbon dioxide from the air and can reduce some of the effects of global warming. HS2’s route is set to be as straight as possible (as bends reduce a trains’ speed), meaning the tracks indiscriminately cut a scar through whatever lies in the way. A recent report by The Wildlife Trusts found that almost 700 local wildlife sites covering almost 1000 hectares are at risk of significant damage from HS2’s construction.

Euston Protestors by Max Letek on Unsplash

The occupants of Euston were mostly part of HS2 Rebellion – a group borne from radical environmental protest group Extinction Rebellion. Their motivations for protesting HS2 stem from the climate crisis, and its knock-on social and economic effects.

“We are pro-rail, but anti-HS2”, said Adamacio, a spokesperson for HS2 Rebellion. “It’s a huge cost to individuals who have lost homes and businesses, and to all of us who rely on green space to help us with the climate, ecological and biodiversity crisis.”

His main arguments against HS2 come from its proposed route. One of HS2’s claims is that it will be a better alternative to domestic air, yet having stations located near airports, as it is set to, seems counter-intuitive. “We think of trains as these green alternatives to cars – which they can be – but not when they’re serving as an airport shuttle bus,” said Adamacio. “This destruction of the environment isn’t going to help us reach our carbon-neutral goals. It’s serving aviation.”

However, some argue that having stations by airports mean that they can serve multiple cities at once in an area, where there is already existing infrastructure. And by having fewer stations, the energy required to keep accelerating and decelerating trains is reduced, keeping the trains efficient and fast.

HS2’s proposed route. Image via Cnbrb on Wikimedia Commons

Just under 40 miles North-West of Euston lies the historic market town of Old Amersham, with picturesque Tudor-style houses and easy access to the Chiltern Hills – one of the UK’s few Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It is quiet area – part of the London commuter belt, yet abundant with chalk streams and nature reserves. With its current planned route, HS2 is set to bore through ten miles of this landscape from May 2021 over the next three years.

Local residents Chris and Lynn have been on the Stop HS2 Amersham committee since 2011, and are frustrated and concerned about the impacts that HS2 will bring to their area.

“I think it has been disproved time and time again that it is a far from green transport system,” Chris said, recounting how on many occasions, their negotiations were disregarded by HS2, resulting in destruction of ancient woodland and hedgerows to make way for Heavy Goods Vehicles. “It’s just desecration which isn’t needed. It’s a total lack of understanding and compassion.”

The impact on the environment has also led to a negative effect on local people’s livelihoods, he said, saying how already, local businesses were struggling, because of changes to the roads. Construction sites have closed many public footpaths and have increased congestion, which is likely to only get worse as the construction progresses.

Chris and Lynn’s biggest concern is the effects the tunnelling will have on the water supply. Because the land is primarily made of chalk, it could potentially cloud the water systems – known as turbidity – harming the local water habitats, and incurring high water treatment costs. “This is not just Nimbyism,” said Chris, “the Chilterns supply much of the drinking water in North West London.” According to them, the information that HS2 finally provided to their local Green MP after a court case shows that they will not know the full effects on the water supply until the construction takes place.

Even on a local level, the true extent HS2’s construction will have on the environment is still unknown – and this is just one of hundreds of local areas that will be affected.

To support HS2’s high speeds, the tracks need to be made from robust concrete, upping its carbon footprint. Initially, HS2 committed to net zero carbon – meaning that overall, the higher carbon costs from construction would be mitigated by tree planting, and an eventual reduction in car and plane use. However, many protest groups have said that it will take 120 years for HS2 to become carbon neutral (which we simply do not have time for in our current climate crisis). HS2 have since called that figure a “myth”.

High Speed Train. Image by Joshua Veitch-Michaelis on Wikimedia Commons

These construction materials are also incurring staggering costs – currently projected to be upwards of £70 billion. Many believe this money would be better spent on improving existing rail networks and local services.

Neil, an engineer who has worked in the rail industry for 30 years, explained the necessity of a new high speed rail system. He wholly supported investing in the existing network – but this isn’t enough to cope with demand, which has been increasing since the 1980s. Even while the pandemic has stalled passenger demand for the time-being, lines are still useful for transporting freight – which reduces carbon emissions.

“You can take a dozen lorries off the road for every freight train,” he said. “At the moment, they have to fit in between the passenger trains because they share the same infrastructure, and that creates knock-on effects.”

Other spokespeople for HS2 have said that having a new line will also free up capacity for slower, more regional trains on the existing network, better connecting other cities across the UK.

Like all transport, to reduce carbon emissions, the rail system should switch to running on electricity from renewable sources. “A lot of the existing infrastructure cannot be electrified,” Neil said. “It’s not so much the high speed we need – we just need more train lines. And if we’re creating more train lines, why not make them high speed and state-of-the-art?”

This increases rail’s appeal, he explained, and makes HS2 a vision for a more integrated transport system. “What is needed is transport hubs, connected by high-speed lines where you can swap easily from one sustainable mode of transport to another,” he said.

a path along yellow flower fields surrounded by trees
Countryside by Peter Mason on Unsplash

Even if HS2 is a necessity in helping reduce emissions in the long term, this still does not solve the problem of tragic biodiversity loss.

The Wildlife Trusts have been in regular negotiations with HS2 since its proposal. These have led to HS2 committing to net zero biodiversity loss, planting a “green corridor” along the route to replace destroyed habitats. They have already created 60 new habitats, and committed to planting 7 million trees.

However, this is not enough.  “I won’t say the green corridor that they’re producing is totally useless,” said Rachel Hackett, The Wildlife Trusts’ Living Landscapes Manager, “it’s of the right idea. But we want to work with them to do more.”

The problem with HS2’s current biodiversity mitigation plan is that it is not strategic. “We believe that some of their proposals for habitat compensation will cause further damage, because they’re proposing tree planting on existing areas of good grassland, so actually you lose more habitat along the route,” she said.

The danger of not creating habitats strategically means that there could only be small pockets of habitats that are not connected to a wider wildlife network. “We’re in one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, which is shocking, and bad for the climate crisis,” she said. “Nature needs to be able to move. It needs to be able to respond to climate change.”

While The Wildlife Trusts are not anti-HS2, they are encouraging HS2 to “stop and rethink” their strategy. “We believe that done in the right way, HS2 can be a positive environmental force, but that means first changing the route and avoiding impacts to our irreplaceable habitats.”

However, this is proving to be a frustrating negotiation. “We feel communication is one of the one of the poor problems,” Hackett said. HS2’s detailed route has still not been communicated to The Wildlife Trusts, or to other local and national environmental groups. “We don’t know the exact impacts on the environment until the development starts.”

HS2’s lack of dialogue with local governments and environmental groups has been frustrating for Chris and Lynn, too. “Public relations is not a strong point,” they said. “Our campaign group has been going since 2011, we’ve had all sorts of meetings, petitioning in parliament to a select committee, but they’ve gone ahead with it anyway.”

It is clear, that in order to understand HS2’s true impacts on the environment, and to come to any conclusion from this ongoing debate, dialogue between HS2 and environmental groups needs to improve.

And if we truly don’t need the speed, just the capacity, surely HS2 can be strategic with its route and biodiversity mitigation, and become the “biggest environmental project in Britain”.  But whether they can do enough is the issue – and we still won’t know until construction is well underway.


Naomi Dinmore is a student doing an MSc in Science Communication, with an undergraduate degree in Physics and Music. She is also the Web Editor for I, Scienceand is a lover of all things nerdy!