High-speed rail and ‘nature’

Armed with maps and analysis, and adorned with a spectacular double-page photograph of the Chilterns, the Independent newspaper (12 March 2010) covered the Labour government’s latest transport proposals enthusiastically. An editorial argued that the dominant concern should not be cost (£30billion)… ‘but ensuring promises are kept’.

Britain already has one high speed line, connecting St Pancras International in London with the Channel Tunnel and the extensive high-speed network in mainland Europe. To connect London with northern England and Scotland with fast railways is a project that many would say is long overdue. Find out more from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-speed_rail_in_the_United_KingdomLord Adonis, the Transport Secretary is a railway enthusiast and one senses in possession of enough drive and fleet-of-foot to have a major role in seeing this project through – even serving as a minister? – whatever the result of the forthcoming general election in Britain.
This makes a great evolving case study, which in Adonis’ own words on BBC Radio 4 Any Questions (13.3.10), captures much of the ‘economic and social geography’ of contemporary Britain. Adonis has made imaginative statements about the persistent British ‘north-south divide’ before, notably in Prospect magazine (Issue 133), recommending moving the House of Lords to Manchester.

But never mind the social and political stuff. Many geography teachers would have been attracted by the environmental issues. The main article/photograph carried the headline:
‘Idyllic countryside chosen for first leg of Britain’s high-speed train revolution’
The photograph itself had a caption which read: Campaigners fear the natural beauty of the Chilterns … will be ruined by the high-speed rail network.

As we tried to show in chapter 10 of our book, geography can help interrogate such statements carefully.


Nature – ‘natural beauty’ – may be too easily conflated with ‘idyllic countryside’ and vice versa. It is useful to question this relationship. As Noel Castree points out in his 2005 book Nature, geography makes knowledge about nature, but this is not the same as nature itself. He also questions the too ready binary distinction we tend to make between humans and nature (as if human beings were not part of the natural world, or didn’t have a ‘human nature’). Although physical geographers might often focus on scientific/objective knowledge of environments, human geographers are altogether more perspectival, rarely claiming to be able to account for the world ‘as it is’, but acknowledging cultural, social and political processes that contribute to its making – and what we make of it.
So what does the caption imply by natural beauty? That it will be harmed by the building of a railway line? The difficulty with this view is that looking at the picture of idyllic countryside, there is not one centimetre that does not have the signs of human impact. The railway will become as natural a part of the future landscape as the intensive farming, the hedgerows, the villages and roads are part of the idyllic scene … It is not accurate to present nature as unchanging, stable and timeless. It is not helpful to present human beings and the environments they make as somehow being apart from nature. They are part of nature.


1 Response to “High-speed rail and ‘nature’”

  1. 1 Anestis Kokkinidis March 15, 2010 at 8:22 pm

    I agree with the proposal of moving the House of Lords to Manchester. Decentralisation is useful, because it can help people who want to have access to politicians near their neighbourhood. On the other hand, the Internet and the media can facilitate communication between the people and the government. However, it seems to me that people tend to believe that if politicians (ministers etc.) are not near the (would-be) voter, they cannot feel the problems that ‘ordinary people’ (e.g. in rural areas) face.

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