On the right track
By Paul Wheeler
The client for the proposed massive High Speed Two rail line argues that it is doing everything possible to mitigate the effect on the landscape. But should it be going further and thinking more creatively?
High speed two (HS2) is variously described as the great infrastructure project of our time and an amazing engineering undertaking that is critical for Britain’s long-term economic development. But it is equally portrayed as an evil blot on the landscape that will blight and divide communities, destroy ancient woodlands and important natural habitats.
Ralph Smyth, senior transport campaigner at Campaign for the Protection of Rural England has described current plans for HS2 as ‘mass-produced, characterless concrete bridges built along the route... It’s as if a thousand, standardised, flat-packed bookcases will be erected alongside rolling fields.’
It doesn’t sound promising. But wherever you stand on the project, it would be wrong to accuse HS2 of not taking its design – in terms of form and function – seriously.
Last summer HS2 convened a summit bringing together Britain’s top designers with the aim of creating a set of design principles for HS2.
Britain has brilliant railway design heritage and ‘HS2 is a fantastic opportunity to take that tradition into the future’, said HS2 chairman David Higgins, at the event.
‘We recognise that High Speed Two will affect those who use it and those who don’t,’ he added, ‘so we must seize that fact as an opportunity.’ We should, he said, ask how stations should reflect and enhance their surroundings, how trains should be designed for greater efficiency and to produce less noise: ‘In short, how can it be the benchmark to which others refer, and how can we exploit this to the benefit of Britain’s design and engineering industries?’
David Kester, former chief executive of the Design Council, is leading the design vision work for HS2. He says it is all about achieving excellence across all aspects of design. ‘For HS2 to fulfil its transformational potential will mean that every aspect will need to be brilliantly considered and to work hard for so many people: communities along the route, passengers; pretty much every UK citizen... This is what great design and innovation can deliver. It is excellent news for the project that the government and HS2 are placing a high priority on design and ingenuity.’
Nethertheless there is a view that current landscape architecture and planning considerations are based purely on the needs for mitigation and amelioration. What is being talked of at the moment seems to be ‘mostly cosmetics and disguise’, argues Kathryn Moore, professor of landscape architecture at Birmingham City University and former LI President.
She has initiated her own HS2 Landscape Vision (HS2LV), one that places the landscape at the core of HS2 and uses it as a catalyst for the economic, physical and ecological transformation of communities impacted by the route.
‘By adopting a more holistic and inclusive approach to the overall planning of HS2, it is possible to engage communities in the project, promoting social cohesion and economic development incorporating bio-diversity, culture, ecology spatial quality and identity,’ Kathryn said.
‘Ultimately, the aim is to transform a linear engineering project into an artistic and scientific national treasure by creating a range of local, regional and national landscape experiences,’ she said.
‘This is not just about trains going faster or creating a singular engineering project. This is a real opportunity to create an enduring legacy for the region and the UK as a whole.’
With respect to Birmingham, she has examined the potential transformation of both the Tame and Blythe valleys, as ‘the green heart of the Birmingham region’. Both, she says, are largely unloved and unnoticed, hidden and blighted by 20th century infrastructure, particularly the road-dominated planning of the 1960s that restricts access to work, educational, cultural and recreational opportunities.
‘We are talking about reinventing the region over a long period. It’s not a concept that exists only during the construction phase of HS2. It’s not just about ecology, things that grow or planting lots of trees,’ she says.
Landscape can mediate the impact of HS2, she argues: ‘Let’s turn the whole thing on its head, and use HS2 as a catalyst to help the city become what we want it to be in the long term.’
Essentially, she believes, ‘HS2LV is about spatial planning and design at city region level. It is about re-establishing a symbiotic relationship between the city and its landscape.’
Significantly, HS2LV has found tremendous support and interest. People are already seeing the city in a different way, she says. Politicians and key stakeholders are beginning to recognise the potential of the landscape to mediate between administrative, technical, social and cultural forces, resulting in a project that is valued by all.
Andrew Grant, founder of international landscape architecture and urban design practice Grant Associates, is an advocate of Kathryn Moore’s plans. He describes HS2LV as being ‘in the spirit of all the great landscape evolutions in the country, by seizing an opportunity to reinvent and rekindle the connection between the people and the countryside in a way not seen for decades’.
The route to the future
High Speed Two (HS2) is being taken forward in two phases. Phase one will connect London with Birmingham and the West Midlands; and phase two will extend branches of the Y-shaped route to Manchester and Leeds. Other cities will connect into the route using HS2 trains running on existing tracks or via edge-of-town stations.
Construction on phase one is scheduled to start in 2017 and the first high-speed trains should be operating between Birmingham and London by 2026. The preliminary phase two route was announced at the start of 2013, with a planned completion date of 2032. However one of the key recommendations from HS2 chairman Sir David Higgins’ recent (October 2014) report ‘Rebalancing Britain: from HS2 towards a national transport strategy’ is that construction of phase two should be accelerated with the aim of this line being operational to Crewe by 2027.
HS2 is seen increasingly as the start of an expanding national high-speed rail network. Momentum is building in the Scottish Parliament for a high-speed link between Glasgow and Edinburgh that would halve journey times to 30 minutes. And in ‘Rebalancing Britain’, Sir David proposes radically improved east-west rail services between the northern cities of Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Hull; an idea that has already been dubbed HS3.
The case for HS2 – it’s all about capacity, stupid
Over the last decade passenger rail journeys have grown 50% to 1.46 billion a year, with long-distance journeys growing at the fastest rate. By 2020 a further 400 million journeys will be made.
Network Rail predicts the need for additional capacity on Britain’s key inter-urban rail routes will become critical from the mid-2020s, particularly on the West Coast Main Line.
The government asserts that further incremental upgrades to the existing north-south rail network will be insufficient to provide the capacity required to meet the country’s long-term economic growth.
There is cross-party support, at least in principal, for the proposal that new railways are needed. These, the government argument runs, could operate at either existing inter-urban train speeds (termed ‘classic’ speeds) or at high speed. But building new classic rail lines would not be significantly cheaper than building new high-speed lines, nor would their impacts on the environment and communities be significantly less than those of high-speed rail.
Furthermore, the government says, classic rail lines would deliver far fewer benefits in terms of enhanced connectivity and support for long-term economic growth and geographically rebalancing the country’s economy, than those represented by high-speed lines.
The main premise for HS2 is that it will provide new, long-distance services and release significant capacity on existing routes, which could be further redistributed for passenger and freight trains.
Time savings are of secondary importance. As Doug Oakervee, former chairman of HS2, observed: ‘The high-speed name tag is sometimes more of a hindrance than a help in terms of gaining public support.’
Keeping low in the landscape is key to noise and visual mitigation
HS2 is seeking the powers to construct and maintain the project through the Hybrid Bill process, which is considered the most effective legal framework for major transport infrastructure.
There are separate bills for each phase. Parliament approved phase one in April 2014; and HS2 is working towards submitting the phase two bill by 2017. This depends on when government ministers make their final decision on the route, which is now not expected until after the general election in May.
The key document in supporting the bill’s progress is the environmental impact assessment that identifies in detail along the route the significant impacts and mitigation measures on the community, property, landscape, visual amenity, biodiversity, surface and ground water, archaeology, traffic, transport, waste and resources.
Consultants Arup and URS led the phase one environmental impact work. Their resulting environmental statement report sets out the principles and approach to mitigation, which is expected to be adopted on phase two.
The overriding design consideration is to avoid or reduce landscape and visual impact. As a result, the route has been kept low in the landscape, wherever possible.
Through the Chilterns Area of Natural Beauty (AONB), for example, a distance of over 20km, the route will run in tunnel for 12.1km and in cutting for 5.5km. This will avoid, or greatly limit, the visibility and noise of the railway in the rural landscape. Overall, says HS2, the special characteristics of the Chilterns AONB ‘will not be significantly affected.’
Of the total phase one route distance of approximately 230km, about 53km is in tunnel, 74km in cutting, 65km on embankment and 19km on bridges and viaducts.
Other overarching design principles include that individual elements of the project, such as bridges and viaducts, are ‘in keeping with the local landscape’, and that some two million trees will be planted to provide visual screening and integrate the railway into the landscape.
HS2 also embraces the concept of green infrastructure (GI). It identifies this as ‘an approach to planning and development that aims to create a planned network of high-quality green spaces, water resources and other environmental features’.
It describes GI as something it can relate to the built or natural environment, which ‘informs various aspects of project development, including design, engineering and environmental management’. Considerations such as landscape, biodiversity and public access are ‘all relevant’, HS2 insists.
The resulting ‘green corridor’ is not, HS2 says, a single piece of infrastructure; rather it extends beyond the railway corridor to the land directly around the scheme and any wider opportunities for mitigation beyond the railway.
It could be argued that it’s not such a huge leap from this position to that of the Wildlife Trusts, particularly when put in the context of HS2’s design vision principles.
The Wildlife Trusts is fundamentally opposed to the project on the basis that ‘the very last thing we should be doing is creating new linear barriers to the movement of wildlife’.
Nethertheless it takes a pragmatic view, arguing that on the basis that HS2 is going ahead, it should become Britain’s biggest nature restoration project. It says that HS2, as a flagship infrastructure project, must demonstrate ‘an exemplary regard for the environment’.
The Wildlife Trusts’ vision is a 1km-wide ribbon of wildlife-rich landscape either side of the line – planned, established and run by a partnership of residents, landowners and local and expert groups. Recreated and naturally regenerated habitats would buffer, link and provide ‘stepping stones’ between wildlife sites.
In time, the groups says, there would be new meadows, woodlands and wetland expanses to explore, alongside existing farmland, communities and housing. ‘Green bridges, pathways and cycle tracks would reconnect communities cut through by the proposed line.’
This would spread the benefits of HS2 to many along the route, it says, rather than just those near its few stations.
HS2 mitigation strategy
Planned mitigation measures are location specific and depend on an assessment of the nature and severity of the adverse environmental effect and of the effectiveness and value for money of the ameliorating measures.
Mitigation measures applied in the design of phase one include:
• Developing the route to avoid likely adverse environmental effects, especially on residential properties, community facilities, public open space, businesses, farm buildings, sites of ecological and heritage importance, and the wider landscape
• Using tunnels and cuttings to reduce noise effects and provide visual screening for local communities
• Using earth mounding and planting to screen views and integrate the project into the local landscape
• Providing fences and earth mounds to reduce noise effects on communities
• Providing links across the route to maintain access for roads, public rights of way and properties, and to allow safe passage of wildlife
• Creating new habitats and other features of ecological value to compensate for unavoidable losses
• Avoiding or reducing impacts on floodplains and flood storage areas
Approach to mitigation
Avoid - Designing the project so that a feature causing effects is avoided (eg. through changes in alignment)
Reduce - Designing the project so that a feature causing effects is reduced (eg. design changes to reduce visual effects)
Abate - Abating, either at the railway (eg. noise barrier) or at receptor (eg. screening at property)
Repair - Restoring or reinstating a feature after effects have occurred (eg. to address temporary construction effects)
Compensate - Compensation for loss or damage (eg. planting new woodland elsewhere, or compensation for loss of amenity)
This is a fascinating, demanding and controversial project. While some criticise the landscape strategy it is clear that a great deal of thought has gone into it at the strategic level. It will be fascinating in the years to come to discover how this is realised in a detailed way. For train passengers, speeding through the landscape, it is the broad brush approach that will be important, but for many residents who live nearby, only their tiny patch of landscape will have true importance – and it will be vital to get this right.