The axe falls: route of High Speed 2 rail line announced

Justine Greening, the Secretary of State for Transport has now announced the final route for the HS2 rail line which will carve its way through some of our most beautiful countryside and require the demolition of many homes so that we can get to Birmingham 15 whole minutes quicker! And it will only cost £32bn – honest. Despite claims of popular support, when faced with loud opposition from those living in its path or near enough to be blighted by it, those who care about our heritage and the environment, rail users, road users, opposition politicians, coalition politicians, Cabinet members, and MPs from their own parties, some important improvements have been wrung out as to the route – some of which have significantly enhanced the prospects for some of our country houses previously affected.

Edgcote House, Northamptonshire (Image: Bacab)
Edgcote House, Northamptonshire (Image: Bacab)

One of the most significant houses to be affected by the initial route was Edgcote House, a glorious, grade-I, Georgian gem, which faced having the main view from the house out over the lake terminated by a not inconsiderable viaduct.  However, the new route has moved the line to the east, leaving the lake, and the view, largely preserved.  I wonder how much this change was influenced by the prospect of having to pay compensation for ‘statutory blight’ on a multi-million pound house and estate – a possibly more forceful reason, sadly, than just ruining the setting of a fine country house.

Hartwell House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Giano via Wikipedia)
Hartwell House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Giano via Wikipedia)

More broadly, Dame Fiona Reynolds, Director General of the National Trust, has cautiously welcomed the alteration to the route, though, there are still concerns.  Having seen off very early proposals which would have had the route disturb the stunning West Wycombe Park, the later revisions did propose to run the line, with inadequate measures to minimise the impact, rather close to the National Trust’s grade-I Hartwell House in Buckinghamshire.  It seems that the powerful voice of the NT has succeeded in increasing the mitigation measures with extended deep cuttings to minimise the visual and sound impact – but it’s certainly not the tunnel they were hoping for.

Another house which has definitely escaped the blight is Shardeloes, also in Buckinghamshire.  The route originally ran across the other side of the shallow valley in front of the house on the other side of a main road (which already cuts through the parkland).  Although this section was to be in a cutting, under the new plans, the extended tunnelling completely removes the above ground elements near the house.

Of the other houses, Waddesdon Manor was never really going to be affected, the route past Stoneleigh Abbey hasn’t changed, still slicing through the agricultural showground which had already blighted the setting of that fascinating house, nor have there been any changes to the situation for Chetwode Manor.  On the positive side,  The Vache benefits from the extended tunnel at Chalfont St Giles, and that same tunnel means that the route now sweeps well to the south of Pollard Park House.  Grade-II* Doddershall Hall has also gained further protection.

Although it is easy to be sceptical about HS2, I am, in principle, a strong supporter of railways, particularly over domestic flights and more roads.  However, where projects of this scale and expense are proposed, it is even more important that the full costs – financial, social, material, and environmental – are fully understood, especially where irreplaceable built heritage will be compromised.  Commenting on the changes, Justine Greening said: “The changes mean that more than half the route will now be mitigated by tunnel or cutting and there will also be a reduction in the impacts on people and communities, ancient woodlands and important heritage sites. The revised route offers considerable improvements to communities, with the number of dwellings at risk of land take almost halving and the number experiencing increased noise levels reducing by a third.“.

So, overall, the effects on the country houses nearest the line have largely been removed or minimised. But what seems a shame is that so much energy and expense had to be deployed to achieve this – why were these considerations not taken into account as a matter of course when the initial plans were drawn up?  Sadly, it seems that cost pressures demand that civil servants start with the most damaging option and then must be forced to not spoil the nation they are supposed to be looking after.  Perhaps, one day, heritage will be valued so highly that such proposals are not even considered.  One can always hope.

Full plans: ‘HS2 revised line of route maps‘ [Department for Transport]

9 thoughts on “The axe falls: route of High Speed 2 rail line announced

  1. Norman Josling January 12, 2012 / 09:34

    Nothing against Birmingham, but who are these poor souls who need to get there at 225 mph?Some of the most beautiful scenery in the country can be appreciated from a train, but not at those speeds.

  2. Thomas Edwards January 12, 2012 / 11:07

    I am a great lover of country houses (and indeed this excellent blog!) but I also understand the reason for the new service. Many people concentrate on the speed increase, forgetting the other benefits.

    The population of Britain is growing, particularly in cities. We need to accomadate for this. Either we widen our motorways or build new ones, which nobody wants as they bring a 24-hour buzz and truly are ugly. Or we look at other transport.

    The trains are only marginally faster, but they will also brake a lot faster too. Why is this important? It means that for every train you take off the existing network, you can add two more. This new route will allow the rest of the network in the South and Midlands to expand.

    We need something, we cannot just hope it’ll work out, then provide a knee jerk reaction to the problem.

    I would rather a fast train glided through the country side every 30 minutes, with a small footprint on the countryside, rather than an eight lane motorway popping up creating a permanent noise. Don’t forget that 22 miles of the train line will be covered, you can’t do that with a motorway.

  3. Andrew January 12, 2012 / 13:00

    It’s good to see the track past Edgcote House moved further away from the house, although it’s now only about half a mile, which is still very close for a high speed rail line. Amazingly, the new Chipping Warden ‘Green Tunnel’ extends to the north to protect an unlisted airfield and industrial estate from the track, but stops south just before the Grade I listed Edgcote estate – can anyone please explain that logic? I’m not an engineer so the symbols and legends on the plans are not very helpful, so can anyone please also explain how ‘sunken’ the track will be (especially on the southern end, which rises up to a new HS2 viaduct over the River Cherwell flood plain, while still on the Edgcote estate), and whether the trains will be visible from the upstairs floors of Edgcote House. Furthermore, there doesn’t seem to be any measurement of the noise or vibrations of the train at the house; shouldn’t this also be considered? I would be very interested to know if the owner of Edgcote is now ‘happy’, or busy with his next protest letter! I think the latter.

  4. Edward January 12, 2012 / 16:00

    It is worth pointing out, because the media seem to ignore this, that the principal reasoning behind the construction of the new line is actually to ease capacity issues on the WCML and therefore in theory the wider network. Not just the benefits (or otherwise) of being able to get to Birmingham a bit quicker. If it were only that, they could spend less and put in ‘in cab signalling’ on the WCML to increase speeds.

    Otherwise I completely support the direction of your article and agree wholeheartedly that it is a shame that these battles have to be so hard fought.

  5. Oliver Chettle January 12, 2012 / 16:15

    As a passionate supporter of both our heritage and our country it makes me want to cry that so many people are so short-sighted and selfish in this country.

    A small part of the line passes through some wooded rolling countryside that falls short of National Park status, and it does so mostly in tunnel. Well, there is no point in building infrastructure solely in the flattest parts of the country, so that’s just what happens when big infrastructure is built. Real life is about compromises. Your fantasy of a country in which the things that are necessary to create prosperity in an ever more competitive world don’t happen, yet there are vast pools of wealth available to restore and maintain country houses is just that, a fantasy. It is not a constructive position at all.

    In order to make this struggling country a bearable place to live for future generations, we need to invest in infrastructure, without which we cannot have prosperity. All infrastructure requires some compromises to me made, but if we don’t build it, things will be far worse than if we do. For one thing, in an impoverished future, people would be far less likely to be able and willing to find the money to invest in the restoration of country houses.

    As for Norman Josling’s point, the main benefit of the line is not actually the faster travel, but the desperately needed overall increase in capacity. I do wish the supporters of the line would place more emphasis on this point.

  6. Andrew January 14, 2012 / 12:00

    Your 10th and 13th January tweets on Mavisbank House and The Mavisbank Trust are stark reminders of how slow and ineffective our councils and heritage bodies can be when dealing with more complicated cases. The mischievous former owner of Mavisbank, Archie Stevenson, must be laughing from his grave to see that 18 years after his death in 1993, and 25 years after his eviction from the property in 1986, the protectors of our heritage are still only talking about acting.

    I also believe that the Edinburgh Evening News article may be misleading in stating that “the order will only be pursued if The Mavisbank Preservation Trust is able to raise enough money – an estimated £12 million – for its restoration”. The Trust would only initially need funds to “reimburse the council’s costs” of the compulsory purchase (which may not need a purchase amount if no owners come forward).

    On a minor factual point, the BBC article also refers to ‘The Mavisbank Preservation Trust’ and ‘Midlothian Preservation Trust’, which I believe are incorrect names, as the existing organisation is called The Mavisbank Trust.

    These issues are all probably worthy of a detailed article here.

  7. James Canning January 15, 2012 / 20:22

    Great piece.

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