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Environment

Eco concerns about UK's high-speed rail plans

The EU says modernizing transport is a major way that the bloc can cut emissions and become more environmentally-friendly. But still, the UK's planned new high-speed rail network may not be quite the ticket, say critics.

The UK's 50 billion euro ($66 billion) high speed rail project known as HS2 has recently overcome attempts by opponents to derail it in the courts and is now due to gain final approval this year.

If it stays on track, work on the network through Britain's countryside will begin in 2017. The high speed line is meant to halve journey times between London and other major cities like Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.

The EU is probably elated at the news. Transport is responsible for about a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in the bloc, something the EU wants to address, and high-speed rail is good way to cut car and airplane commuter numbers they say. Also, the HS2 network will rely mainly on overhead power lines, rather than diesel locomotives.

But, for Roger and Jenny Waller, at their home in the tranquil Chiltern Hills, northwest of London, the planned railway will have marked effects.

"We're going to have 36 trains an hour zipping past here," Roger Waller told DW. "The trains will be moving at 220 miles (350 kilometers) per hour, with all the dust pollution and the noise pollution that brings with it. For those of us who moved here for the tranquillity, it's going to be devastating," Jenny Waller added.

A Eurostar train travels on a high-speed rail line in Kent, England

Eurostar trains already travel at high speeds through the English countryside on the HS1 network

Conservation versus commerce

The Chiltern Hills stretch in a 40 mile (65 kilometer) arc to the northwest of London. The gently undulating landscape, the beech and oak forests and the patchwork of fields make it some of the finest countryside in Britain, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors from London each year.

Jenny Waller says she and other locals who are protesting against the high-speed rail network are not only concerned about their wellbeing.

"We believe it's really important that people can come to places of tranquility and experience it," she said. "It brings their sanity back and they get in touch with nature. Once nature is destroyed, it is gone forever."

Meanwhile, in its promotional campaign, the HS2 company, which is wholly-owned by the UK's Department for Transport, says it will be "an engine for growth for the 21st century."

The company says the rail line will bring the country closer together, pump tens of billions of pounds into the economy and create thousands of jobs. Jerry Blackett from the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce agrees.

"We know that when you put big projects in like this you get new businesses setting up," said Blackett. "You get jobs being created. Stuff happens when people can get to places quicker."

And what's more, without HS2, says rail lobbyist Jim Steer, the UK will be in trouble. "We will end up with a rail network that's congested and unreliable and unable to fulfill the needs of a growing economy. So we've got to think forwards," he said.

A passenger passes a high speed train at London's St. Pancras International station in London, Britain, 28 January 2013. (Photo: EPA/ANDY RAIN)

HS2 supporters say that it will allow UK business people to travel around the country faster

Modern connectivity

David Theiss of the New Economics Foundation doesn't think that HS2 is forward-looking at all. He believes it harks back to the good old days. "It's a bit of nostalgia," he says, adding that it seems to replicate an old desire to repeat the country's innovations of the Victorian era.

According to Theiss, if the UK wants to be really futuristic, it should install fiber-optic broadband internet across the country. "It should be investing in this type of future connectivity, rather than thinking about connectivity in the 20th century context.”

Super-fast broadband will have environmental benefits too, says Theiss, by reducing the need for business people to travel around the country, because they can use video-conferencing and e-commerce. As a result, carbon emissions will be cut.

But rail lobbyist Jim Steer isn't buying it. "Big business deals are done by people meeting each other. And if the internet enables people to work remotely, they still need to get together," Steer told DW. "That's one of the reasons why demand for travel is increasing, not diminishing."

Steer says travel by high speed rail would cut carbon emissions per passenger by 73 percent compared with the equivalent journey by car. The reduction would be even greater compared with flying.

Two ICE trains from Deutsche Bahn travelling beside each other near Augsburg, Germany. (Photo: Stefan Puchner dpa/lby)

Germany's high-speed ICE trains should also be able to travel on the HS2 network, authorities say

Unstoppable momentum

None of the potential benefits consoles Jenny Waller and other residents of the Chiltern Hills. She is more concerned about the potential impact on the landscape.

"I think we have a moral obligation, a responsibility, as we're privileged to live here, to look after this protected landscape for future generations," Waller told DW.

In spite of her opposition, the project is gaining momentum and may soon be unstoppable. All three main political parties - Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat - support high-speed rail.

Phase one, from London to Birmingham, is set to open in 2026, with the full Y-shaped route up to Manchester in the west and Leeds in the east, open by 2033.

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