News from Kent on HS2

A delegation from the Chilterns Conservation Board, visited the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty to see for ourselves whether any lessons could be learned from the experience of HS1 (Eurostar). This was before the specific details of the proposed HS2 route had been released. I especially wanted to see for myself three aspects of HS1. The individual design elements, the impact on the countryside and the changes that have come about since the line first opened.

The group first visited a crossing adjacent to the historic Pilgrims way near Boxley Warren. We saw a bridge that was square, concrete—a brutal modern design and were told that all the bridges en route were of the same uniform appearance. The same square functional approach also applied to the tunnels. Presumably the main factor was cost and speed of erection rather than empathy with the surroundings. Overall the visual impact is of masses of concrete, huge gantries, security fencing and the development of roads, lighting and engineering huts that are used for servicing the tunnels. In two other countryside locations it became obvious that a drastically over-engineered approach had been taken with kerbs, turning bays, signs, white lines—all adding to the dramatic contrast with the surrounding un-improved roads. We also found that HS1 was only a beginning. Despite assurances that construction sites would revert to their original state, a green field site has now become an industrial estate. Local high speed services have been introduced along the HS1 line, freight carrying is now being talked about along with the development of road and rail interchange stations, the result being that line usage is being increased incrementally and arguably way above what was originally proposed.

The proposal for HS2 which has such a significant and detrimental impact on Buckinghamshire and Wendover in particular, would normally have been dealt with by a Public Inquiry. In the case of HS2, this will not happen. Following public consultation, the decision maker will be Parliament itself. Bearing in mind the obvious danger of not having a Public Inquiry, it seems to me that the only way forward is the twin track approach—object vigorously but with alternative proposals (and there are others with quite legitimate advantages) but also seek numerous improvements to the existing proposals. In the worst case scenario, it will be the only chance to insist on any mitigation.

I felt that four points arising from my Kent visit may be of use to those wanting to be involved in the public consultation;

a) the possible incremental increases in line usage;
b) a change in the design approach;
c) an independent problem and complaints body should be set up with a remit covering sites beyond the narrow rail area;
d) address the mitigation measures required, insisting on the maximum.

Copies of my lengthier note to AVDC have been given to both the Parish Council and the Wendover Society. We must bear in mind that the situation is still fluid—the HS2 report was a recommendation only and no decisions have yet been taken. This could run and run, new information will be produced all the time but we should work together to prevent our AONB from being devastated by a high speed line a s has happened in Kent.


Chris Richards’ report sent to Wendover Parish Council and the Wendover Society

Following a site visit to the Kent AONB organized by the Chilterns Conservation Board, I include some thoughts about the effects of the HS1 experience and the lessons to be learned.

Section 1 – Benefits

After some discussion with a member of the Kent Downs AONB at the Shorne Wood Countryside Park, we discovered that some benefits arose from the original HS1 proposal. Its arrival acted as a lever to focus minds and attitudes on landscape protection and as a result the concept of managed landscapes was created.

Another positive result was that the funds were available for areas not immediately next to the railway. (The Rail Link Initiative) The criteria for RLI was that if buildings or communities were affected by noise from HS1 or by extra traffic generated by new roads or by-passes then they qualified for funding. HS1 also acted as a catalyst that changed attitudes to parts of the AONB e.g. at the time, the Darnely Mausoleum was a wreck – the impact of HS1 caused a rethink and it is no longer a wreck.

Section 2 – Site visits and Comments

The site visit group stopped at the bridge on the historic Pilgrims Way near Boxley Warren. The bridge in question was square, concrete, brutal modern design and we were told that all the bridges en route were of the same uniform design, presumably on cost and speed of erection grounds. The design code was being set by the route and the cost and not be surroundings or empathetic design. At the Pilgrims Way bridge an attempt had been made to minimize the adverse impact by using wooden cladding on the inner walls and this had helped blend it in with its surroundings. The same square functional approach is also followed in the tunnel design.

When bridges and tunnels are adjacent, the most visible and immediate impact is of masses of concrete, gantries, huge security fences plus smaller fences that define the edge of the buffer zone. In addition there are engineering huts lighting and access roads that are used for servicing the tunnels. Furthermore the main security fence has high-impact brightly coloured yellow security notices at regular intervals as far as I could tell all the way to London.

We stopped over at two other locations, near a farm access road and also near Boxley village. The farm access road was drastically over engineered; tarmac, kerb stones, white lines, parking, turning bay. The contrast with roads leading up to and past the farm was very striking, none having had any of these improvements, therefore they blended better into their surroundings. Boxley is a small Kentish village and here again the engineering impact on local landscape distinctiveness was very detrimental – again kerbs, extra footpaths, signage and white lines. Furthermore road improvements may have led to greater road use / speed and an encouragement for ore traffic to pass through the village.

Section 3 – Issues, lessons and solutions arising from the above

HS1 Overall visual impact on the countryside close to the track is very serious indeed. A distance view from say between quarter and half a mile was arguably less so.

The landscape can be managed and the impact on the communities can be lessened by creating cuttings in sensitive areas as the trains are hidden and the gantry impact is minimized. The use of hi-tech acoustic fences consisting of modern sound deadening materials with exterior wooded cladding which reduces noise and blends them into the landscape. However in my view this amelioration is only effective if these measures are a decent distance from housing.

Section 4 – Short/Longterm possibilities/ consequences

The HS1 route grew and developed into providing extra local high speed services. The Javelin is capable of speeds approx 90 – 110 plus mph;The provision of 2 high speed services has increased the line usage;The use of the line to carry freight, possibly at night-time, is being floated around. This would of course increase the impact on communities (However, it is worth noting that though the old design Eurostar creates a loud rolling noise, the new Javelin train is much quieter and more acceptable;The fact that in Kent more road/rail interchanges are being looked at, means that the end result could be a trebling of line usage.

In conclusion, four major points arose from my day to assess HS1

There should be a change in the design approach (led by planning authorities) from purely engineering solutions (i.e. speedy assembly, functionality by use of concrete, reconstitutes stone and aluminium facings) to materials and design statements more in keeping with the landscape;Tactical decisions need to be made now – definitive ideas on what is required. Two of the groups heavily involved in HS1 and the Channel Tunnel, the Cobham and National Bank Initiative together with the Rail Link Countryside Initiative Group, now say that in retrospect they could have achieved much more mitigation benefits if at the time they had tried for everything going.It is vitally important to have an independent problem and complaints body in existence as work progresses. Kent had an Independent Complaints Commission set up by Government covering areas of potential upset with powers to look beyond the narrow rail area. This encompassed work camps, construction traffic, etc. unfortunately it had to be funded by local authorities.Because of the incremental increase in line usage, it seems to me that any authority dealing with HS2 has to take a long term development view covering at least 20 years.

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