Transport Secretary’s announcement of preferred route for East West Rail timely reminder of HS2’s failure to protect environment, says conservation group
Responding to the Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapp’s announcement on 30 January of the preferred route for the proposed East West Rail connection between Oxford and Cambridge, the RSPB has said the scheme highlights the environmental shortcomings of its more (in)famous peer, High Speed 2.
In publishing it’s preferred route option for the section of the line between Bedford and Cambridge, East West Rail Co. restated its commitment to achieving “biodiversity net gain” from the project – something HS2 Ltd has so far failed to adopt.
Notwithstanding concerns about the potential impact of the final alignment of the line, and the “unfathomable decision” not to electrify the route, the RSPB claims East West Rail’s net gain ambition marks a line in the sand for large national infrastructure projects to protect and restore nature.
RSPB Operations Director Jeff Knott said: “Given the very negative response of HS2 Ltd and the Department for Transport to the numerous concerns that have been raised about the scheme’s impacts on wildlife, it is something of a revelation that another national rail scheme right next door is making such positive noises about its intent towards nature.
“Everything we understand about HS2’s likely environmental impacts points to the high price it will exact from nature. Given the enormous challenges we are facing with the loss of wildlife and habitats, climate change and the threat to ecosystems, it’s not a price we should even be considering making nature pay.”
HS2 Ltd, the public company responsible for building HS2, has never subscribed to biodiversity net gain, instead opting for the less beneficial goal of “no net loss”.
The consensus among conservation organisations is that it is likely to fail to achieve even this target, said the RSPB, with impacts on irreplaceable habitats such as ancient woodland and birds like the barn owl a major concern.
Jeff Knott: “East West Rail has shown that it is perfectly possible for big national infrastructure projects like HS2 to adopt ambitious targets to increase nature, and we should absolutely expect them to achieve them. If they don’t, they risk undermining all our efforts to reverse the loss and damage we have already done.”
East West Rail isn’t perfect though.
While the RSPB welcomed the decision to exclude the most environmentally damaging routes – including one that could have seen the line pass within metres of The Lodge nature reserve, which is home to the charity’s UK headquarters as well as rare heathland and woodland habitats – it questions some aspects of the proposals.
“The Transport Secretary has taken the unfathomable decision not to fully electrify the line, which will instead run diesel-electric trains,” says Jeff Knott.
“It is very difficult to see the sense of this in a year that Mr Shapps has also promised the first national Transport Decarbonisation Plan – or how it is compatible with the UK’s legally binding target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, let alone the earlier target of 2045 called for by the RSPB and others in The Climate Coalition.
“There hasn’t been a Strategic Environmental Assessment, and one of the least environmentally damaging routes wasn’t even considered. The starting point for achieving biodiversity net gain has to be avoiding harm and protecting what is already there, so these are serious omissions.
“We will continue to challenge these and other aspects of East West Rail that might damage nature. We need to secure the best possible outcomes for nature from all development in the face of the Climate and Nature Emergency, and we believe that means all development achieving biodiversity net gain.”