BIMBeing: The Journey #28
#28 – The light for HS2 is anything but green…
Image from Arup at www.arup.com.
High Speed 2, or HS2, has been officially given the go-ahead by the government last week. Whilst that’s financially great news for the construction industry, is HS2 really the answer we’re looking for?
I’ll start by saying that my opinion on the matter is quite neutral; I’m seeing the positives and negatives side by side and they’re both propping me up on the fence. I feel that I’m therefore quite unbiased in my opinion, but lets see if that’s still the case by the end of this article.
I’m a big believer in the need to invest in infrastructure and I think the government are right to quote that our public transport systems are “the backbone of the economy”. Without roads and rails we would physically not be able to get from one place to another, so it’s fair to say that transport infrastructure matters.
1. The long-term benefits of ‘greener’ transport.
We’re almost all aware now of the impact we are having on the natural environment and therefore any investment in ‘green’ initiatives (those that reduce pollution/our carbon footprint) should be embraced. By increasing the capacity and practicality of rail services we should be able to massively reduce the number of vehicles being used to commute between the North/Midlands and London/the South. This, in turn, could substantially reduce vehicular pollution: firstly, by removing potentially millions of commuting vehicles from the road; and secondly, by reducing congestion on these roads it would allow all of the remaining traffic to move more freely and therefore more efficiently. Providing that the electricity required to operate the line can be generated sustainably, there is the potential to make a hugely positive impact to the environment; another step towards ‘net zero’ that’s being promised by the year 2050 (a date that I’m certain will be missed, pessimistic is an understatement).
2. Balancing the wealth between North and South.
The divide between North and South is enormous; you only need to consider the average salaries or property prices to see the colossal differences that still exist. There is an argument to be had about improving connectivity between the regions that could support a balancing act, levelling the playing field for the entire UK (or working towards it). Faster, more frequent trains between different regions opens up the option for people many miles away from London to access the city, access new job roles and possibly higher salaries; vice versa, companies may feel encouraged to relocate outside of London, supported by improved connectivity back to the Capital. Lets not also forget that the recent election has seen many new Conservative party voters in the North and Midlands; the government is to some extent ‘indebted’ to these regions. The Tories must therefore make good on their promises to invest outside of London and the South, so this would seem like a pretty good starting point.
We need more housing, fact. Each year the government fail to meet their house-building quota, particularly in London, which has about as much chance of hitting the target as a blind chimpanzee with a broken bow and a rubber arrow. London is immensely congested, space is not readily available and land values are astronomical – it’s not working. Creating additional, reliable, high-speed rail links to the capital unlocks the opportunity of additional housing outside of London without the burden of impractical commuting times. This could in turn bring further work and wealth to areas in the North and Midlands, supporting the balance of prosperity.
4. Stimulating the construction industry.
£100Billion is not something that anybody on this planet can shrug at; that’s an enormous volume of money. With the recent uncertainty and lacklustre economic growth this cash injection will be broadly welcomed by the AEC industry. A scheme this huge employs thousands of individuals across the country, from design to management and manufacture to construction – this amount of work is a fantastic stimulant. Combine that with the potential for further work linked to the scheme (like potential new housing mentioned above), and you’re looking at many years of activity for our industry.
The positives are strong, but the negatives are almost equal at the very least. “There is no such thing as a free lunch” – that’s certainly true here.
1. Short-term environmental impact.
A project of this size comes at the cost of the environment, especially locally, and at least in the short term. Although it’s being championed as a ‘green’ project, you cannot ignore the amount of damage that will be caused during construction: destruction of landscapes and natural habitat; the pollution from thousands of vehicles used for delivery and construction; noise and dust created by demolition, excavation and construction; and the impact of producing the huge volume of materials required, including hundreds of kilometres of concrete and steel. I don’t know the answer, but at what point does a project of this magnitude ‘break-even’ in terms of environmental impact? How many years of service or how many journeys made until enough carbon has been saved to offset that produced during construction? At some point the carbon ‘debt’ will be repaid, but how soon? Is it still ‘sustainable’?
2. Long term environmental impact.
Once again, the ‘green’ credentials come under scrutiny when you look at the longer term impacts of a new railway on this scale. Firstly, electricity. Just because electricity produces no pollution at the point of use does not mean that it’s carbon-free. How will the additional energy be produced to meet the demands of this new line? Alongside the enormous £106Billion cost of the railway itself will be further costs, investing in sustainable electricity production to not only meet our current demands but to extend that capacity to meet new demands such as this. Power aside you have other, mostly acute, impacts of a railway line. The production of PM2.5 for example is an issue linked to rail transport (just look at the London Underground as an example). You’ve got the sustained impact to the natural environment too from the land ‘lost’ to this scheme and any other schemes linked to it (like additional housing). Again, at some point in time it would be expected that the project ‘breaks-even’ in terms of environmental impact, but when? Just how many journeys must be made before the environment starts benefitting?
3. Disruption to existing homes, businesses, towns and villages.
Whether it’s a small house extension or a multi-billion-pound rail project, neighbours complain. It doesn’t matter if the works are for improved pubic services, improved utilities, new schools or hospitals, people in the local area will always fight it – fact. On this occasion though, I do see the point. The scheme is so huge that disruption will be incredibly widespread. Whether it’s the demolition of homes, noise and pollution of the works or increased traffic through rural towns and villages, the disruption caused by HS2 is nothing to ignore. The ‘greater good’ must be considered of course, but if you were about to be subjected to 10 years of noise, dust and heavy traffic outside of your home you too would feel justified in your complaint.
Money. The construction industry is particularly good at under-estimating projects, it’s an unintentional collective skill. Government projects are particularly renowned for this, I can’t think of a single high-profile project that has reportedly finished on or under budget. Crossrail is a great example; years of additional costs and delays, with still no firm end date in sight. From the outset HS2 looks to be tarred with that very same brush. Original estimates for the project were between £30-£40Billion; the project is barely underway and already that estimate has approximately tripled to a staggering £106Billion. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind then that this will continue to rise, so the end figure is almost entirely unknown. Is this going to be value for money? Similar to the environmental impact, how many journeys must be made before the project is seen as ‘profitable’ or even financially self-sustaining? If we’re trying to ‘go green’ with this money, are there better options? How much sustainable energy could be produced with that money by investing in solar, wind and nuclear energy for example? How many low or zero emission vehicles could be purchased? A brand-new Tesla Model 3 retails at £38k; £106Billion would buy you 2.8 million of these vehicles at retail price, substantially more if you assume that a significant discount on such a bulk order would be possible. That would equate to replacing aound 10% of all cars in the UK, without any local environmental impacts. I’m not saying that this is the answer, the electric car has many environmental deficits of it’s own (especially the rare earth metals), but it’s an example of other options. Have all other options for such a huge pot of money really been considered?
That’s the basic arguments laid out, but it leaves me with plenty of questions. I haven’t researched in any great depth so some of these may be known, however;
1. Will the line be affordable for passengers once open? If ticket prices are too high will it still be cheaper, per journey, to drive? If so, the project has failed. There won’t be enough journeys made (or road journeys saved) to pay back the financial and environmental deficits.
2. Out of the current budget, what improvements will be made to local infrastructure? Parking at new train stations, new or upgraded roads in local areas, upgraded electricity production across the UK to support the ever-increasing demand?
3. Is it really value for money? Have the alternatives really been investigated?
4. Is it actually required? I’m not saying yes or no to this one, because I really don’t know, but do we definitely need a new railway on this route? In terms of jobs, digital connectivity allows us to work remotely with individuals all across the globe – the requirement to be physically present at work is being continuously diminished. If you can work remotely from London with somebody in Singapore, can you not work remotely with somebody else in the Midlands? I know that this isn’t the case for all jobs, but it certainly needs to be considered along with everything else. Is there really a sufficient demand for this project?
I’m left, at this point, with more questions than answers. Whether there is a good case for the project or not I feel that the current political atmosphere is driving this project forward rather than the demand for the railway itself. There are certainly benefits, but do these counter the environmental impact, local disruption and astronomical costs? I would certainly argue that it’s not the ‘green’ project we’re being promised, but I’m still not convinced either way.
Do you have some interesting points to add? Maybe you have the answer to some of my questions or a counter to one of my arguments? Let me know in the comments, or email email@example.com to discuss in private.