Johnson greenlights woodland-destroying high speed rail in UK

Over budget, behind schedule and failing to tackle climate change, it's full steam ahead for the HS2 project.

    Boris Johnson visited an HS2 construction site in Birmingham on Tuesday, in advance of his announcement [Eddie Keogh/Pool/Reuters]
    Boris Johnson visited an HS2 construction site in Birmingham on Tuesday, in advance of his announcement [Eddie Keogh/Pool/Reuters]

    The green signal for the United Kingdom's new high-speed rail link will mean the destruction of wildlife and woodlands - and will not help tackle climate change, campaigners have warned.

    Environmental groups called for a redesign of the already vastly over-budget project - known as High-Speed Two, or HS2 - which they say will carve through ancient woods and other wild places, and damage rare wildlife from barn owls to butterflies.

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    They warned that the climate crisis could not be tackled by damaging nature, and called for a focus on local public transport to cut carbon emissions from travel rather than building the large-scale rail infrastructure project.

    Adam Cormack, head of campaigning at the Woodland Trust, said the scheme would "shoot a poisoned arrow through the heart of our ancient woods and their wildlife".

      The UK's High Speed Two 
     

    - What was its original expected cost?
    The project's initial budget was 32.7bn pounds ($42bn) at 2011 prices.
    In 2015 it was allocated 56bn pounds ($73bn) 

    - What is the latest estimate?
    A review by Douglas Oakervee found it could cost up to 106bn pounds ($137bn) 

    - What about the schedule?
    The first phase between London and Birmingham was due to open in 2026, but HS2 Ltd chairman Allan Cook said last year it would be 'more prudent' to open between 2028 and 2031

    - How much money has already been spent?
    HS2 Ltd has spent around 8bn pounds ($10bn) on buying land and property, ground investigation work, technical designs, IT systems, wages and public engagement

    - What has gone wrong?
    Whitehall spending watchdog the National Audit Office found the project was over budget and behind schedule because its complexity and risks were under-estimated by the Department for Transport and HS2 Ltd

    - Why is it so expensive?
    There are several reasons why HS2 is costing so much. The railway will sit on concrete slab track, which is more robust than traditional ballast but comes at a higher cost. Putting the line below ground into tunnels and cuttings at several locations reduces the impact on surrounding areas but is more expensive. Buying property on the route is also incredibly costly.

    "Future generations won't forget the disregard shown for the environmental costs of HS2, especially at a time when recognition has never been greater of the need to protect the environment in the face of the climate and nature emergency," he said.

    "The government is riding roughshod over its own environmental ambitions and ignoring lessons learned from the past, by allowing destruction of ancient woodland and other important habitats on this scale."

    Spiralling costs

    Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who secured a significant election victory in December by winning towns across northern England, told MPs on Tuesday he would restore "discipline" to Europe's largest infrastructure project after its costs spiralled.

    A review was carried out last year into whether HS2 should still go ahead, after its predicted cost rose from an initial budget of 32.7 billion pounds ($42bn) in 2011 to a reported 106 billion pounds ($137bn).

    Opposition Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn said the government had shown it was unable to manage large projects properly. "People in those regions to whom he promised so much in the general election are going to be sorely disappointed when they see what actually happens," he warned.

    HS2 is one of the few issues causing unrest in Johnson's Conservative Party since he won a large majority in Parliament.

    The line cuts through areas outside London which are home to Conservative voters, putting pressure on those MPs. But it is also symbolic of his election promise to spend more money improving infrastructure in the north of England.

    "HS2 is unloved, unwanted and has been grossly mismanaged," Conservative legislator Andrew Bridgen said, adding that he feared the project "could well be an albatross around this government and the country's neck".

    Johnson responded defiantly: "Every great infrastructure project is opposed by the people at this stage."

    He avoided the embarrassment of a widespread party rebellion by promising to overhaul the project's management, review some elements of its route and simultaneously announce funding for other local transport projects.

    Bad management

    Phase one of HS2 will run between London and Birmingham, cutting travel times by half an hour.

    A second, Y-shaped phase, will launch in two stages: Phase 2a from Birmingham to Crewe, followed by Phase 2b from Crewe to Manchester, and Birmingham to Leeds.

    Johnson acknowledged that the new railway had been plagued by bad management but said that did not detract from the "fundamental value" of building it.

    First approved a decade ago, the project has been the subject of repeated delays and reviews. Trains were originally scheduled to begin running in 2026, but Johnson said on Tuesday that services could start by 2030.

    XR protest HS2 - reuters
    Extinction Rebellion are among protests groups to have set up camp protecting woodlands endangered by the rail link's construction [Gareth Morris/Extinction Rebellion/Handout/Reuters]

    Friends of the Earth's campaigns director Jamie Peters said: "HS2 is a costly and damaging mistake which will threaten wildlife, destroy ancient woodlands and do nothing to reduce climate-wrecking pollution.

    "Anyone who has tried to take public transport recently can tell you why building HS2 is completely the wrong decision. The estimated 100 billion pounds ($130bn) earmarked for this project would be better spent fixing the dilapidated commuter rail network and funding other initiatives to encourage people out of their cars."

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    He said the five billion pounds ($6.5bn) pledged by the government for bus and cycling infrastructure was a "nod in the right direction" but fell far short of what is needed to build a low-carbon transport network to deal with the climate crisis.

    Greenpeace UK executive director John Sauven said: "We're totally in favour of a transport revolution that cuts pollution and carbon emissions, but bulldozing through irreplaceable wildlife and nature sites is not the way to go about it."

    He said Boris Johnson's decision to greenlight HS2 would make the PM "this century's largest destroyer of ancient woodlands in the UK", with more than 100 ancient woodlands set to be destroyed or damaged, along with 33 sites of special scientific interests and hundreds of local wildlife sites.

    "Giving the go-ahead to such a costly and damaging project is a missed opportunity. The prime minister should have created a first-class regional rail and bus service, up and running across the North in years rather than decades and without adding to the climate and nature emergency," he said.

    Contracts worth around 10 billion pounds ($13bn) have already been awarded and shared out between the UK's Balfour Beatty and Mace, Swedish-headquartered Skanska Construction, France-based VINCI Construction and Spain's Dragados, who will be among the companies building the line's tunnels and stations.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies