The government today announced £23m for cycling projects, some of which I understood would go to the HS2 Cycleway – although Sustrans seems to have, understandably, earmarked its share of the money for priority links across the existing network.
Either way, my conversations with stakeholders in Buckinghamshire have raised questions over whether, even with Government funding, the HS2 Cycleway could ever happen. The Government-owned company has been accused of failing to agree to add bridges and tunnels, or change bridge alignments, even with landowner and planning permissions, and minimal cost - and preventing children from ever cycling to school. HS2 Ltd says it doesn’t recognise any of these claims.
HS2 Ltd made a ‘legally-binding commitment’ to ‘cycle proof’ the rail line, i.e. consider cycle crossings along its length, which it then seemed to back down on. The point is while the cycleway can be built in the future, bridges and tunnels need to be built with the railway track, as costs to retrofit are high – and the window is fast closing.
HS2 Ltd building more road than rail - and very little cycling
A spokesperson for Buckinghamshire County Council told me although local residents and councillors want the cycleway, which forms a backbone across the county, “[HS2 Ltd] have definitely made it difficult for us”.
“From [HS2’s] perspective they have been very clear ‘we are building a railway and we don’t care about cycling’, their interest is getting the railway built, as smoothly and quickly as possible,” the spokesperson said.
In reality HS2 Ltd is actually building more miles of road than rail. My FOI revealed the Cycleway could reap up to five times greater returns than the rail line itself - making cycling possibly the most valuable part of the project.
John Grimshaw, Sustrans co-founder, identified issues with the 12 crossing points in Buckinghamshire, extending south to Stoke Mandeville, and north, via to Doddershall and Claydon House, a National Trust property. Three of those, he says, are crucial to the Cycleway’s future.
“Kids will never be able to cycle to school again”
One of the links, a tunnel near Quainton, which Grimshaw says were in original HS2 plans, were later dropped.
“Right now kids are cycling to school, and they will never be able to do that again, ever,” Grimshaw said. “The problem for school children etc., is that all the new roads they are building … are built to a high fast standard which encourage more traffic.”
Grimshaw said: “They are replacing like with like, i.e. roads with roads. They are replacing public footpaths even if they are not used.”
“What they aren’t doing is creating a new world for local people, for all these settlements that they are blasting past, they are doing absolutely nothing.”
There are potentially scores of crossing points up and down the country like this. As things stand there is a real risk communities will be permanently locked into car dependence by simple inaction.
Then there is the issue of funding. Government says it’s up to local authorities to fund the cycleway from various pots. However, the Bucks spokesperson says actual opportunities are limited: one pot has a £1m limit, and councils can’t reapply within 6 months (and are apparently unlikely to get a second go); another is for business development projects like business parks, and Local Cycling and Walking Investment Plans (LCWIPs) have no funding attached to them.
Grimshaw said: “We said we will find the money, but [HS2 Ltd] won’t even tell us how much is needed, so we can’t even do that.”
The Bucks spokesperson said while some easier links, such as realigning bridge ramps to link with cycle routes, are likely to happen, new underpasses or structures “haven’t got a chance - or at least less of a chance.”
“All the [HS2] plans say no cycleway at the moment. However, they are talking with us and that’s our opportunity,” they said.
Another planned ramp to a new bridge could be realigned to cut a quarter of a mile zig-zag off the Waddesdon Greenway, after the existing bridge is destroyed by the rail line, but Grimshaw says HS2 Ltd won’t make those changes.
70,000 users expected on ‘pathfinder’ route in first year
The Waddesdon Greenway is an HS2 cycleway ‘pathfinder project’ in Bucks, opened in September 2018, with a whopping 70,000 cycling and walking trips predicted in its first year – up from virtually no cycling trips on a busy A-road.
John Grimshaw, the Sustrans co-founder who fundraised and organised construction of the Greenway, with the agreement of Lord Rothschild, who owns Waddesdon Manor, says plans to extend the route are in jeopardy since HS2 Ltd froze planning permission for an underpass 18 months ago. The alternative will be a busy, likely fast road.
Grimshaw said: “At early meetings with Richard Adams (HS2 Ltd) at Canary Wharf, he said that provided we obtained planning consent and land-owners agreements then HS2 would be able to consider revisions along these lines. Greenways and Cycleroutes [Grimshaw’s company] along with Buckinghamshire County Council have played their part but there has been no reciprocal support.”
“HS2 Ltd would have blocked the Waddesdon Greenway if they could.”
“They have definitely made it difficult for us”
From the Bucks experience, even with (notional) government support, local council support, demand from residents, planning and landowner permission, and even funds, the HS2 Cycleway seems a Kafkaesque impossibility.
“In the back middle of last year there were lots of strange things going on,” the spokesperson said. “This [issue] got bumped up to the chief executive of HS2, they all agreed that we should work on it. Once we have been meeting about it and talking, there’s an acceptance on HS2’s part, if Bucks County Council can put everything in place, land agreements, etc., then they might consider it. Then we come back a month later, we are still in the same place, none of the actions have been done, and we are back to the start again.”
“It’s deeply frustrating, and it makes broader planning more difficult. The HS2 national cycle route forms a backbone through Bucks, and all our local cycling plans are routed around that, the idea being once you’re in a town you can get around with the local cycle route, which links up to the NCN.
“Without this all of that is up in the air.”
The Department for Transport keeps telling me: “We would encourage local authorities interested in progressing cycle routes to incorporate them into Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure plans and explore funding opportunities with their Local Enterprise Partnerships.”
The reality for cycling seems very different.
An HS2 spokesperson said: “We do not recognise these claims. We are developing the detailed designs for HS2, and have made clear that if proposed cycleways fall within our land limits and do not incur any additional cost to the taxpayer, we would try to incorporate them wherever possible. We have met with Buckinghamshire County Council on this matter and continue to work with them and other relevant local stakeholders to develop these plans, as well as discussing the necessary planning consents and permissions.”
Bucks County Council tell me the above is not their official line, and asked me to include the following.
Buckinghamshire County Council Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Transportation Mark Shaw said: “Our official position remains that we strongly support the recommendations of the HS2 National Cycleway Feasibility Report, which plays a central role in our emerging walking and cycling strategies.
“We have a constructive relationship with HS2 Ltd on this issue and are continuing to work with them to ensure that, wherever possible, necessary accommodations are made to emerging HS2 designs to avoid the need for costly and disruptive retro-fitting at a later date. Where it is identified and agreed that these accommodations are feasible, the County Council and its partners are seeking to secure the funding and consents required for these cycleway elements to come forward as part of the construction of the HS2 line.”