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February 6, 2011 / clayliesstill

High Speed Rail – not a sustainable transport solution

Recently I had the pleasure (?) of visiting Ebbsfleet International. ‘International’ presumably on the basis that a few immigrants are employed in the shops in the vast, empty terminal building.

I have seen this giant structure many times when passing to and from France on Eurostar but this was my first visit.

I used to be ambivalent about HS2: I appreciate that extra capacity on the West Coast Mainline route will be desperately required in 15 years time and I can see the case for shifting domestic aviation to rail (already much of the Manchester-London traffic has shifted because of increased frequency and speed since 2008).

However the combination of the French experience, together with what I saw in Ebbsfleet has completely turned me against this project.

French lignes à grand vitesse have attracted a considerable increase in rail patronage, however, part of that growth has come at the cost of run down regional services and freight traffic. Instead of branch lines feeding passengers to town centre stations to catch faster, longer distance services, the French system now relies on stunningly built but out of town TGV-only stations, like this one at Avignon.

Avignon TGV is 4 kms from the town centre station. A bus runs between the two, but it’s hardly convenient. Spacious car parks surround the TGV station, but even they are nowhere near as spacious, nor as empty as those at Ebbsfleet.

There are around 6,000 car parking spaces at Ebbsfleet, scattered around the station like rocket launching pads. For many years they stood completely empty as the station was built but not opened.

Then the occasional Paris or Brussels train stopped there and, like Adlestrop, no-one came and no-one left.

Just over a year ago domestic high speed services started running on HS1 (at a not particularly fast 225 km/h) with many stopping at Ebbsfleet enroute to more interesting destinations. The ability to zoom to St Pancras in 20 minutes no doubt hauled quite a few people off the slower line that runs near Ebbsfleet and probably encouraged hundreds more to drive long distances to park in the rocket launching pads and walk for 15 minutes to the station.

Unsurprisingly, however, those 6,000 spaces are only fractionally filled. Here is how Car Park B looked in the middle of a working day in January:

Beautiful, isn’t it?

There are plans for similar car parks for the HS2 station in north Warwickshire.

A railway system that increases local car travel and simply enables people to travel faster does not suggest to me to be part of the solution to a lower impact, community-scale approach to transport that I believe we should be looking towards.

As John Whitelegg and others repeatedly say: travelling farther and faster is never going to be sustainable, whatever mode it is.

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