What Price Tranquility?

One of the most interesting proposals to deal with the conundrum of HS2 was made over the summer by the Conservative Transport Group, who suggested amongst other things that the line should follow the route of the M40.  This way it would use an existing transport corridor, and not harm the “tranquil Misbourne Valley” on its way through the Chilterns.

Now readers of my blog HS2 the slow way will remember that I didn’t actually find the Misbourne valley that tranquil, but further north the proposed route certainly does pass through some very tranquil countryside, far from a trunk road or railway line.  So this idea is attractive to me.  Back in Rochester, where you left me at the end of my last blog post, I am about to find out how well it might work.

As I walk out of Rochester along the Medway I can see the bridges carrying the M2 and HS1 across the river.   And if you sat on the balcony of one of the new apartments which overlook the water you would hardly be aware of the noise of the traffic.  It’s only as I get a lot closer, into Borstal (yes – it’s where the name comes from.  I’m sure locals must have been overjoyed when the more prosaic term Young Offenders Institution entered the language), that the traffic noise starts to hit me.

It gradually becomes a wall of white noise which must go on pretty much 24 hours a day.  I’m sure there is some sort of noise barrier, and I expect local people have got used to it – after all the road has been here since the early 1960’s – but I certainly notice it.  I pass under the M2, which marks the boundary between the built up area of the Medway Towns and the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and right next to me is the bridge carrying HS1.

I walk on for a couple of minutes, with the noise of the M2 on one side and the line of HS1 on the other, and wait for a train to pass.  I wait absolutely ages in fact.  There are 4 trains an hour in each direction on the line – two Javelin domestic services to Ashford, Dover and Margate (a place I’ll be visiting for my next blog post), and one or two Eurostar services to Paris or (occasionally) Brussels.  After more than ten minutes a Javelin train passes by.  I count the seconds.  I can hear it above the traffic for about ten.  Then it’s gone.  Even when it’s passing by it isn’t that loud.  Shortly afterwards a Eurostar service passes in the other direction.  It’s louder, and longer, but even so it’s long gone in twenty seconds.   Frankly it’s not the trains; it’s the constant noise from the M2 which dominates my walk along the downs.

The route of HS1 follows existing Motorways and Trunk Roads for virtually its entire journey from the edge of London to the Channel Tunnel.   And for the next ten miles or so it also follows, pretty closely, the route of the North Downs Way through the AONB.   The footpath veers away from the motorway for a while, but then I’m under the flight path from Rochester Airport, and single seater aircraft buzz above me like genetically modified hornets.  Then as I near Bluebell Hill I’m hit by the full force of the noise from the A229.   To be honest the whole walk is rather like pacing up and down on the hard shoulder for three hours waiting for the breakdown truck.  I’m getting some exercise, the view is quite nice, but the whole experience is not one I would willingly repeat.

When you’re out in the countryside looking forward to a tranquil walk you certainly do experience another side to Motorways.  Driving is one of my guilty pleasures I’m afraid, and the view through the windscreen is often part of that pleasure.  The stunning prospect of the Howgill Fells from the M6 in Cumbria; crossing the Tamar Valley into Cornwall on the A38; the North Downs in Surrey from the M25 – these are all iconic images of National Parks and AONBs I can bring to mind from decades of car travel.  Hermetically sealed in my metal box, with the music playing, the scenery passes by as if in a movie.  Out of my car walking on a footpath beside the road for a while I get a very different experience.  Any enjoyment I might have got from the beauty is blown away by the total lack of tranquillity.  And this isn’t any old footpath.  The North Downs Way is a designated National Trail and part of European Route E2.

So it’s an emphatic “Yes” to the question “would the noise of HS2 be largely lost against the background of a motorway?”  The trains will be more frequent (up to four times as frequent in fact), longer and faster than on HS1, but even so I’m confident the motorway would be the dominant experience of our ears.  But to the question “would HS2 on its own ruin the tranquillity of the countryside?” I still have to use my imagination.  HS1 has been so well planned that short of leaving the country and walking through northern France it’s the only tool I have.   But I suspect that the Eurostar trains I heard today would have a real impact on any areas which are very quiet at the moment.

Now I’m pleased to say the Government still accepts that protecting areas of tranquillity is important, whether or not they are in a Green Belt or AONB .  Try paragraph 173 of the draft National Planning Policy Framework for size.

“Planning policies and decisions should aim to identify and protect areas of tranquility which have remained relatively undisturbed by noise and are prized for their recreational and amenity value for this reason”.

The sustainability appraisal of HS2 doesn’t duck this issue.  In fact it reprints CPRE’s tranquillity map of the area, which shows that large parts of the route are through areas in the “most tranquil” category.  It then acknowledges in paragraph 8.4.7 that much of the route between Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire and Southam in Warwickshire will have its tranquillity “potentially(sic) affected”.

Fair play to them.  This is exactly what I had found on my walk.   However, read on to paragraph 8.10.27:

“Impacts on tranquility and quiet areas would be considered in more detail as part of the Environmental Impact Assessment should the scheme be progressed further.”

And that’s it.  Nothing else.  Not a mention in the consultation document.  The box has been ticked and we can leave it to the EIA.  Now routing HS2 alongside the M42 and the M40 between Birmingham International station and Old Oak Common, or indeed alongside the M1, would be a bit further than the proposed route.  Given that journey time savings are at the absolute heart of the economic case it clearly isn’t going to score as well economically.  And at present we have no way of weighing the impact on tranquillity against the faster journey time.  By the time the EIA is produced the Government will have settled firmly on a route and it will be a bit late.

This is a serious omission.  Being able to access tranquil areas as a retreat from the noise and activity of the modern world is a vital part of our quality of life.  The route of HS2 goes through the middle of some of the most tranquil countryside you can find between London and Birmingham.  Surely we should properly appraise an alternative that doesn’t do so.  Like a route alongside a motorway.