A wildlife charity says the government’s admission that the speed of HS2 trains are ‘almost irrelevant’ means it can afford to change the route to protect the environment.
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin has said cutting 20 minutes off journey times between London and Birmingham was ‘almost irrelevant’ but added the route was ‘essential for the future competitive edge’ of Britain.
Matt Jackson, head of conservation strategy at the Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust, said: “If ultra-high speed isn’t such an important factor, HS2 Ltd should be re-examining the route to avoid doing so much environmental damage.
“The proposed speed of HS2 is directly responsible for some of its most environmental impacts on ancient woodlands and important habitats for rare wildlife.
“Not only does it take more energy to reach high speeds, but the route itself, which can only make gentle turns and climbs, can’t avoid wildlife sites along the route.
“If the Government says the project is no longer about speed, then the route should be looked at again to see where slower speeds would allow route adjustments.
“This would mean the route could avoid nature reserves such as Calvert Jubilee, and other wildlife assets including the ancient woodlands of Bernwood Forest, home to the rare Bechstein’s bats.”
Calvert Jubilee, one of the wildlife trust’s nature reserves, is directly affected by the HS2 proposals.
Suggestions that the route could be moved to reduce the impact on the reserve were rejected by HS2 Ltd earlier this year because of the speed of the trains.
Bechstein’s bats are known to use ancient woodland on both sides of the proposed route for feeding and breeding. T
The Bernwood Forest Bechstein’s Bat Project recently confirmed a maternity roost of these very rare bats in a plane tree in the garden of a house at Doddershall, within 500 metres of proposed line.
The Bat Project also had a peak count of 96 Bechstein’s emerging from a single roost in the area.
Bechstein’s bats are protected from disturbance under UK and European Law, and were only discovered in Bernwood Forest, which straddles the HS2 route, just before the route was selected.
Mr Jackson said: “When the HS2 preferred route was first published we were astounded there was no intention to investigate the ecological impacts of route alternatives before the line was fixed.
“Now that the Government has acknowledged that speed is not the deciding factor for HS2, HS2 Ltd should look again at the route through the Bernwood Forest area, and could offer alternatives that would protect the Bechstein’s bats.”
HS2 Ltd has carried out surveys to examine the ecological effects of the proposals, but over a very short timescale.
The charity says this raises the ‘very real worry’ that there will be significant information that hasn’t been taken account of in the scheme when it is put before Parliament later this year.
Mr Jackson said: “HS2 Ltd have discussed with us how they might reduce the impact of the route on Bechstein’s bats, but this new information suggests that they should be looking over a larger area, and be considering real alternatives that don’t impact on the bats’ flight paths.”
Environmental groups called for the High Speed Rail proposals to be scrutinised through a Strategic Environmental Assessment, a process that would require alternative sites to be looked at and their environmental impacts taken into account.
The Government has resisted that process, and HS2 Action Alliance has been given leave to take the issue to the Supreme Court, with a hearing expected in mid-October.
An intermediate station at Aylesbury was also ruled out early-on by the government on the basis that it would slow down the journey time too much.