The new high-speed rail link in England, HS2, has recently been given the go ahead by politicians. For some reason I feel deep concerns about HS2, and I thought I’d better investigate it properly. Even though trains are a less polluting way to travel than cars or airplanes, the new rail line will cut a new swathe through the English countryside and contribute even to more to the continuing destruction of natural environments that we can’t afford. When I have concerns about HS2, I keep hearing Satish Kumar’s call to “tread lightly” on the Earth and I believe this is a goal we must pursue with conviction.

In the spirit of “Use 10 Percent Less”, you could say that building new train links would be a good thing overall as these might lead to less road transport. But then we can also ask, do we really need a train that can move 1,100 people at a time between Manchester and London in 45 minutes? It would actually be better if we could devise ways that reduced the need for people to travel so much. We’ll also see below that the HS2 project does not stack up well on environmental grounds.

I’m concerned that HS2 is going ahead for two main reasons, (1) politicians need a highly visible project to demonstrate their commitment to people in the north of England (to help ensure being re-elected, even though the money could be well spent upgrading transport services along existing routes with little additional damage to the environment), and (2) pressure from the construction sector to keep a high value project alive with the threat of losing jobs (some companies are going to make a lot of money out of HS2).

In reality, of all the concerns about HS2, we should be first examining its effect on our environment.

Photo from Shutterstock &

What will be the outcome of HS2?

  • 345 miles of new high-speed railway track (requiring a new path through the countryside)
  • directly connecting London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds
  • capable of carrying 300,000 passengers a day
  • From London Euston to Birmingham will take 45 minutes compared to 1 hour 22 minutes today
  • From London Euston to Manchester will take 1 hour 7 minutes compared to 2 hours 7 minutes today
  • From London Euston to Leeds will take 1 hour 21 minutes compared to 2 hour 11 minutes today
  • From London Euston to York will take 1 hour 24 minutes compared to 1 hour 51 minutes today
  • From London Euston to Liverpool will take 1 hour 34 minutes compared to 2 hour 14 minutes today
  • From London Euston to Newcastle will take 2 hour 17 minutes compared to 2 hour 50 minutes today
  • Some of the reports and reviews are a bit contradictory – sometimes saying that the biggest benefit of HS2 is the added capacity and not necessarily the reduction in travel time while also attributing 45% of the economic benefit to the reduction in travel times
  • The HS2 company ( says that HS2 will;
    • help reduce overcrowding by relieving pressure on the existing rail network (in many cases, already 100 years old)
    • be the new backbone for the rail network – connecting major hubs and existing rail links
    • bring people together – it will connect about half of the UK’s population
  • Phase 1 which connects just London and Birmingham will be completed somewhere in 2028-2031
  • Phase 2 which connects on to Manchester, Wigan and Leeds will be completed somewhere in 2035 to 2040

What will be the cost of HS2?

  • In 2015, the official price tag was £56 billion
  • In January 2020, the BBC reported that the cost will be closer to £106 billion
  • The Oakervee Review (ordered by Boris Johnson and dated December 2019, but not published until early February 2020) says;
    • the 2017 estimated total costs (in 2015 prices) were £83.4 billion and the total estimated benefits were £92.2 billion
    • Dec 2019 estimated total costs (in 2015 prices) are £107.6-£114.5 billion and the total estimated benefits were £92.6 billion
    • when revenue from HS2 is factored in, £45.4 billion (60 year time period) can be subtracted from the total costs, the net cost becomes £62.2-£69.1 billion
  • Assuming HS2 connects 30 million people, £114.5 billion means £3,816 for each and every person of those 30 million

What is the opposition to HS2?

According to the organisation ;

  • “poor economic case”
  • “dire effects on the environment”
  • “better ways of spending the money”

The Oakervee Review

The Oakervee Review was commissioned by Boris Johnson and performed by Douglas Oakervee (at age 79). Oakervee is a Civil Engineer who was a former chair of HS2 Ltd and Crossrail (which has had plenty of its own controversy). Lord Tony Berkeley was installed as Deputy Chair to provide balance to the review but withdrew himself from the process and published his own dissenting report (see below).

One of the things that really shocked me about the Oakervee Review was this statement on page 98 (section 11.13);

  • “The full extent of HS2’s environmental and social impact is not captured in the benefit-cost ratio. Adverse impacts during construction in the form of increased carbon, noise and air quality as well as the permanent removal of ancient woodland and land and property are not captured either.”

There seems to be complete disregard for the environment in this HS2 project and in this review. That is 100% wrong.

Lord Berkeley’s Dissenting Report

In Lord Tony Berkeley’s (of the House of Lords) “Dissenting Report”, I was shocked to see this statement on page 17;

  • “The Terms of reference of the Independent Review (ie. the Oakervee report) do not include environmental issues”

Also on page 17, it says that construction emissions and savings from operational emissions will only balance out after 120 years of operation. Now that’s a key point – I need to repeat that in bold…

Construction emissions and savings of operational emissions will only balance out after 120 years of operation!

The environmental aspect is certainly not favourable for HS2, even though it’s a train, partly because of “greater power requirements with higher speeds” and “carbon used during construction”, even without considering the destruction of natural habitats.
These are serious concerns about HS2. Just because it’s is a high-speed train, it uses more energy than a lower speed train and has more construction demands. Do we need to move so quickly? Can we just reduce the need to move around so much?

What does the Woodland Trust have to say?

Obviously, the Woodland Trust has serious concerns about HS2. In their campaign against the rail link (see below), the Woodland trust say;

  • “HS2 is the single biggest threat to the UK’s ancient woods, with 108 at risk of loss or damage”
  • “Phase 1 of HS2 will link London and Birmingham. 32 ancient woods will be directly affected. A further 29 will suffer secondary effects”
  • “Whitmore Wood is still impacted by the single biggest loss of ancient woodland on the entire scheme – an enormous 5.5ha. A single tunnel in this area would remove this loss, but unfortunately the Select Committee has so far rejected this option.”
  • “While we are in favour of green transport and not against high speed rail projects in principle, we are strongly opposed to the HS2 route.”
  • “With at least 108 ancient woods being subject to damage and loss, we consider that the impact of the HS2 route on ancient woods and trees across the UK landscape is wholly unacceptable.”
  • “Any transport system that destroys irreplaceable habitats such as ancient woodland can never be called ‘green’.”

The 2019 Conservative Party Manifesto

In the 2019 Conservative Party Manifesto released during the general election, they said;

“HS2 is a great ambition, but will now cost at least £81 billion and will not reach Leeds or Manchester until as late as 2040. We will consider the findings of the Oakervee review into costs and timings and work with leaders of the Midlands and the North to decide the optimal outcome.”

Since the election, the costs and now gone from £81 billion to £108 billion minimum. It will almost certainly be higher than that.

Unfortunately, the Conservative Party have used the Oakervee report, even though it appears weak, controversial and ignorant of environmental concerns, to rubber stamp the project for go ahead.


What’s the best way forward?

The two biggest concerns about HS2, from my point of view, is that it will destroy 108 ancient forests and woodlands, and that it will release an enormous amount of CO2 during its construction – so much CO2 that we’ll have to operate the HS2 rail link for 120 years to make up for it. The question we have to ask ourselves is – will the environment be in a salvageable state in 120 years? Can we take that gamble?

If we want to decrease pollution and improve the chance the environment has of remaining habitable for humans, we should not proceed with the HS2 project. The priorities should be;

  • travelling less – finding ways to make the economy work where people need to travel less and with reduced need to freight items long distances
  • improve current public transport links across the board and make them more attractive to use
  • make public transport cheaper
  • increase the percentage of woodlands and forests in the UK – fund re-wilding projects

The impact of improving current public transport systems will benefit everyone almost immediately, as opposed to HS2 potential benefits coming in 2030 for some and 2040 for others.

The biggest benefit for all Britains (not just the 50% of Britains that could be connected by HS2) and the environment would come from devising ways to reduce the need for travel. We are wonderfully ingenious people and if we set our minds to it, we can definitely solve this problem. Some obvious possibilities are to decentralise business, use local products and local foods more, and developing technological solutions to allow for more home or remote working.

Imagine if we put £108 billion towards projects to reduce the need for travel. That would quickly reduce the burden on our transport systems and reduce a lot of pollution at the same time. Problem is, a lot of rich business owners won’t like this because they like things as they are, so they can keep making profits as they do.

We have to make the environment as important as any other consideration. My concerns about HS2 are mainly (1) 108 ancient woods will be destroyed, and (2) the construction of the HS2 rail link will create 120 years worth of CO2 pollution (it will take 120 years of HS2 operation to catch up). The UK government has not considered these issues, and they are the reasons the project should be stopped.

References & Related Links – Concerns about HS2