A solution as bad as the problem

I can remember clearly the moment when I began to understand what my partner was telling me about HS2. In hindsight, I realise that the notion that a massive rail structure, which would carry trains travelling at almost two hundred miles an hour, was going to be built almost at the end of our garden was more than I could take in easily. I’d though of it as being quite a long garden but, suddenly, it didn’t seem long enough. The photo I had seen of a derailed train hanging down the side of an embankment, one just like the embankment that carries the Central Line past our house, kept surfacing in my mind. High speed rail sounded terribly dangerous.

As I started to find out more about HS2 I realised that safety wasn’t the only thing to worry about. Greenford Road, one of the most heavily used in the borough, is crossed by two bridges close to Greenford Station, one for the Central Line and another for the main line which would be replaced by something described as a “supporting structure” carrying the new line further out into Rockware Avenue It would resemble the flyover at Brentford. It would result in the demolition of Peter Chennells Hall (known locally as “the scout hut”), the Rockware Business Centre and structures in the privately owned Station Approach. I thought of all the traffic that’s carried along Greenford Road during morning and evening commutes, and the freight that moves along it during the day through the western end of Rockware Avenue. The last thing we needed was a major construction project right next to it, adding more large vehicles to the traffic at that junction while at the same time restricting access to vehicles already using it. I knew that it didn’t take much to cause a buildup of cars and trucks that could clog up Greenford Road all the way to the flyover and beyond. This would also be the case in Northolt, to the west, and Hanger Lane, to the east. I couldn’t imagine how much chaos closing off the bridge that formed part of one of the UK’s biggest gyratory systems would cause. There was no information as to how long the construction would take.

I realised that no one was talking about it in Greenford and that the consultation event being held at Greenford Hall might go unnoticed. Aware that campaign groups had sprung up along the proposed route under the banner of “Stop HS2″ I drew up a flyer and distributed as many as I could afford to in the vicinity of Rockware Avenue and Greenford Road. The event at Greenford Hall confirmed all my fears about the impact HS2 would have on the area. I was told that the timetable would start at 6am from Monday to Saturday, and at 8am on Sundays (how generous of them) until midnight and that trains would go past every few minutes. Twenty eight trains an hour, every hour, from 6am to midnight. I listened to a simulation of a high speed train passing through Northolt and wasn’t impressed. They told me that work on each section would last about two years but couldn’t tell me what measures would be taken to ensure that emergency service vehicles would be able to get through traffic jams during construction. In fact, there were so many things they couldn’t tell me that it began to sound as though the whole thing had been drawn up on the back of an envelope.

While I was there I had the good fortune to meet the reporter for the local paper. I explained why I was concerned about the project and, to cut a long story short, began raising awareness of the impact the massive infrastructure project might have on our area, not least the devaluing of homes, and the need to respond to the consultation. We faced the risk of property blight similar to that affecting those living around Heathrow. Who wants to buy a house with an enormous building site on the doorstep which will give way (eventually) to the constant noise and dirt of high speed trains? I found that campaigners in Perivale, who would be even closer to the line, had been trying to attract support for some time. HS2 would be very close to the nature reserve at Perivale Wood, run by the Selborne Society. By the time the consultation period ended I had done a lot of walking and talking. Most local politicians had come out in support of residents who were finally expressing their concern about it. Everyone agreed that “something must be done”. Unfortunately most of them were hopng that someone else would do it. I tried and failed to pull together a committee that would attract funding and the technical knowledge to counter the arguments being put forward in support of HS2, despite appeals for help. Unable to sustain the financial and physical effort to carry on with the campaign I brought it to an end. Some time later I heard that someone else had picked up the baton in Perivale, which was good news, but I was surprised to learn that they were asking for a tunnel. They eventually got what they asked for and a lot of people were relieved and went back to sleep, convinced that their problems were over. If only they were.

The problem with tunnels is that they require vents – people have to breathe – and the vents associated with tunnels as large as those being proposed for HS2 will be rather subtantial too. From what I’ve learned of the vents along the section of the tunnels that goes through the London Borough of Ealing they will have almost as negative an impact as the overground route. For years residents will have to cope with vehicles associated with the site moving on the roads around each site, carrying away spoil from the tunnels. They will have to tolerate noise and dust and traffic, just as they would have done with the construction of the overground route. The Greenford vent would be sited in an empty plot between the Royal Mail distribution centre and what has come to be known as the Tetris building, a listed structure that sits empty in spite of the best efforts of those responsible for it. They had hoped to find it used for television and film production, but the proximity of the overground route put off potential tenants. The prospect of a vent being built right next to it, taking over the potential car parking area they would have used, has not improved matters. The vent has already had a negative impact on Greenford – it has lost some of its residents the opportunity to work in an industry that has had a base in West London since its beginnings.

This is what the candidates for the constituency of Ealing North had to say about it:
Steve Pound (Labour, MP for Ealing North since 1997): “I’ve now met the HS2 committee and the engineers on site at the proposed ventilation shaft by the IBM building off Green Park Way and I am reassured by the assurances and legal underpinning that will apply.
With no homes within sight of the proposed works and the access road already capable of handling any works vehicles I am not registering an objection to the location. In all honesty I am so relieved that as a result of, inter alia, the efforts of people like yourself we will not be seeing a surface route through Greenford.”

Kevin McNamara (Liberal Democrat): “This is a difficult one. I find it hard to argue that HS2 isn’t of overwhelming benefit to London, the north and the country as a whole and wholeheartedly support it. As for the proposed route through Ealing – I feel a vent would be cheaper and would be less likely to affect nearby properties than running overground (although personally, I live near the West Ealing line and rather enjoy the ambience and aesthetic of a nearby train station!). I realise there’s no simple solution to this, but I feel for local residents, a vent is by far the least problematic.”

Meena Hans, (Green): “The Green Party are completely against HS2 as we feel the £50bn+ that is expected to be spent, a large percentage of which will be paid by the taxpayer, would be better spent in updating the whole of the railway system. This would benefit all rail users rather than shaving off a few minutes to benefit a very small percentage of the population. A recent House of Lords report found that the case for HS2 was not convincing.”

The TUSC candidate did respond to my request for comments but made no specific reference to HS2 and did not clarify his position when asked again. The UKIP candidate was too busy to respond. There was no response at all from the Conservative candidate.

I find it hard to believe that the only access route to and from the site will be Green Park Way. This road is used by Royal Mail’s fleet and it will have to share it with all the vehicles associated with the HS2 site. Another road, on the southern side of the site, is gated off but connects with the eastern end of Rockware Avenue and I think that, in the end, this will be the road most used by the traffic to and from the site. If this is the case it will mean more noise and vibrations for the residents living in the section of Greenford Road nearest to the rail bridges. All those vehicles, whether they use Rockware Avenue or Green Park way, will feed onto Greenford Road.

No one knows whether the spoil waiting to be removed will add to the dust and grit residents already have to cope with from vehicles. No one knows whether the work will create enough noise to make it audible in the nearest residential streets. No one knows at what time the work will be carried out but I am concerned that the fact that it will be out of sight in an industrial park means that the opportunity will be taken to extend the hours beyond that acceptable in residential areas. When the overground route was being favoured there was a chance that the Hanger Lane section would be worked on throughout the night and at weekends – how do we know that won’t happen with the Green Park Way vent? And once it is in place? There are more things we don’t know about it, for instance, whether it will be noisy when it is up and running. Whether it will be secure from interference from terrorists who might see HS2 as a prestige target. Who knows? If the problem, HS2, seems to have been drawn up on the back of an envelope the solution gives the same impression. All this for a route that will be beyond the means of many living in Greenford to use and only accessible from a station in central London that will take the time HS2 is supposed to save us to reach.

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