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HS2 RAIL LINK: Tour of HS2 works in Solihull

HS2 RAIL LINK: Tour of HS2 works in Solihull

Image: LDRS

Earlier this week the Local Democracy Reporting Service took in some of the sites at the centre of HS2 works in Solihull.

The plans have been on the table for years and it could be a similar stretch of time before we finally see the first passengers stream off the platform at the Interchange Station.

In the meantime some of the changes being made can be sudden and stark and several locations already look very different – as our recent whistlestop tour proves.

It’s 11 years and more than a few pairs of shoes since I first went out walking the route the HS2 rail link would take through the borough.

The idea of getting a first-hand view of what was then just a line on the map was partly born out of the age-old problem local journalists have of finding something worthwhile to write about in August.

But it was equally a result of knowing, even then, just how big a project this would be for the patch I covered.

I completed the walk in three legs – Berkswell Station through to Hampton-in-Arden, Hampton up to Birmingham Business Park and the Business Park to up past Chelmsley Wood.

It was a trek I mostly remember for fretting over getting lost in farmers’ fields, trying to avoid getting mown over while criss-crossing a dual carriageway and feeling guilty I’d not told the journalism student who joined me for the first leg to bring her flats that day.

Even then the experience encapsulated a lot of the tensions between the project’s supporters and opponents.

For some the scheme would be a major shot-in-the arm for the region’s economy and ageing rail network, for others it was an overpriced “vanity project” which amounted to environmental vandalism.

These core beliefs continue to shape the debates I sit in on, or in Covid-times listen into, at least every couple of months.

Some of the numbers slung about in arguments have changed – particularly around the budget and predicted completion date – although convictions about whether, in the end, this is a good idea are often unaltered.

The difference between today and the summer of 2010 is that the line on the map has been replaced by works on the ground. And plans laid out over a decade ago have now been set in motion

I decided it might be helpful to return to some of these sites to get a feel for how the first 18 months or so of works have changed things.

Full disclosure in that I was in a car passenger seat for my return visit to some of the key locations earlier this week.

This was partly an issue of timing – I wasn’t sure I could spare quite so many afternoons to cover more than a dozen miles on foot.

But there were also practical reasons. It’s much harder to pick up the course now that fairly sizeable areas have been turned into full-blown, closed construction sites.

Last time around the main obstacles to my endeavour were puzzling sign posts and unmown verges, whereas now many footways have been sealed off and heavy duty machines patrol certain areas.

Nonetheless, my rather briefer recce aims to give an idea about the changes Solihull communities are seeing and what else lies in store.

Balsall Common:

Balsall Common

Image: LDRS

HS2 trains will enter Solihull from Central Warwickshire, with carriages hurtling past Berkswell and Balsall Common.

I also visited the villages a few weeks before the first lockdown, when works were in their initial stages.

Since then the activity has ramped up considerably and this is particularly apparent along the A452 Kenilworth Road.

This is a stretch where quite a lot of trees have been cleared although to be honest it’s the cones which catch my eye travelling down the main road.

The orange and white markers run down great lengths of the carriageway.

Diggers too are busy by the side of the road, as work continues apace at the Park Lane compound and on the construction of a new traffic island at the junction with the A452.

The roundabout is one of many alterations connected to the project, with contractors having updated councillors on progress last month.

The construction of a central running lane is expected to continue until the end of August, followed by the work on the traffic island itself.

The scheme is one of several I perhaps overlooked when I first came this way a decade or so ago.

While it’s easy to imagine tracks scything through the countryside, with works come knock-on changes to highways, walking routes and other infrastructure.

In the same vein are the haul routes which are inevitably needed for the construction traffic connected to a project of this magnitude.

On the approach I pass Hallmeadow Road, which has – amid great controversy – recently been approved as one of the transport corridors for HS2 lorries.

It’s a proposal which has dismayed local residents, not least Andy and Dawn Hardwick who live in dread of the 100s of HGVs each day passing their B&B.

The couple had set up the venture the same year I embarked on my summer walk, but had not thought too hard about HS2 at the time – since the actual trains would run some distance from their property.

But as it turned out, the haul route that work crews will be using comes within yards of their front door.

“We are in a really difficult position if people make bookings and six metres from the site there’s a road building project,” Mr Hardwick had told me.

HS2 insists that it is committed to working with the Annora Guest House and the wider community to find solutions.

And the Hallmeadow Road route will, it argues, reduce the use of other roads and lanes nearby.

If all the activity on the A452 is the most visible sign of HS2’s progress, the less obvious alterations on the narrow byways off the beaten track shouldn’t be overlooked.

Footpaths are everywhere in this heavily rural part of the borough, with concerns about closures recently raised at the council’s implementation advisory group.

Balsall Common campaigner and keen walker Richard Lloyd alerted the meeting to the impact on key routes such as the Millennium Way.

“We must have good information and signage so people can tell in advance which routes are open and which ones are closed,” he said.

A few weeks later a dog-walker’s stroll was disturbed in the Berkswell area, after she received a “Big Brother-ish” warning from an intrusion detection system.

HS2 Ltd has said it is doing work around footways, with a meeting convened in late July to discuss issues with walking groups and other organisations.

Hampton-in-Arden and Interchange:

Hampton-in-Arden and Interchange

Image: LDRS

Head in a north westerly direction and you come to Hampton-in-Arden, another village near where to trains will run.

Although here the big controversy more recently has arguably been around the closure of Solihull Road, approved as part of the non HS2-related M42 works.

Travelling up along Meriden Road, this particular stretch is on the face of it not much changed from the country lane where the first leg of my walk ended 11 years ago.

Even a farm sign offering fresh eggs is much as I remember it.

It goes without saying that civil engineering projects are not built like garden walls, starting at the bottom and working upwards. Activity often varies from one area to another.

There has however been some movement on Diddington Lane, the rural route which runs up to near Stonebridge Island.

And further news on how the Blythe viaduct, one of the most imposing structures on the Solihull stretch of the rail line, will take shape is expected in the coming months.

Not too far away I come to the Interchange site, the 150 hectare triangle which will one day be home to a brand-new station and the wider Arden Cross development.

It can be hard to make sense of the scale of the site if you’re passing along one of the main roads that border this piece of land.

Although some of the structures behind the fences are difficult to miss, not least the two road bridges that will eventually carry a roundabout over the top of the train tracks.

Another of these – 62 metres across and weighing some 2,700 tonnes – was dropped into place over the M42 a little over 12 months ago.

I glimpse it at a distance as I pass the motorway and it’s hard to believe it was moved into position in the space of a single weekend.

In an online briefing, which took place a few weeks ago, HS2 had said that all these works would, among other things, mitigate the effects of the Interchange on key junctions and create new access routes.

Although for HS2’s critics, the swathes of trees which started to disappear from this area in 2019 are proof of just how damaging the scheme will be to the environment.

Sheila Cooper, from the Warwickshire CPRE, a conservation charity, had recently said the works would destroy a huge area of “irreplaceable green belt, and green field agricultural land”.

Although for the scheme’s champions the area where diggers are busying themselves on this rather grey Monday afternoon will eventually offer huge opportunities to the region.

When I went beyond the barriers a couple of months ago and met with business and civic leaders – fully decked out in high-vis – they spoke at length about their hopes for what the project will mean.

Henrietta Brealey, chief executive of the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce, said improved transport links were hugely important to the local economy

“The station here is going to be in the best possible site [to benefit] from that investment,” she said during the site visit in June.

North Solihull:

HS2 rail

Image: LDRS

Anyone familiar with the large roundabout near the entrance to Birmingham Business Park would struggle to get their bearings if they’ve not been past this way recently.

Once again the island looks like an obstacle course of cones and barriers – not dissimilar to the sort of thing you’d see in one of the more creative Olympic events.

Fortunately traffic is relatively light as I pass at just before 5pm; perhaps partly the school holidays effect or that many are still to return to work at the nearby offices – which emptied when the pandemic first struck.

Today the construction vehicles – kept busy even during those strictest lockdowns – are hard at work on what will be a permanent realignment.

The eventual plan is that a new T-Junction will be in place here and the recent frenzy of activity is very much laying the ground for this work.

A HS2 spokesman has said the layout would also incorporate a “free-flow slip” allowing motorists to bypass.

Branching off towards Chelmsley, I pass the distinctive but diminishing Pool Wood on my right-hand side.

It was late last year, when the autumn colours were emerging, that trees by the roadside started to be taped off.

Although it’s only been in the past few weeks that contractors have begun the job of removing large areas of vegetation.

Workmen can be seen through the trees and a number of jagged stumps are visible on the outskirts of the woodland.

It’s fair to say sights like these have been among the most emotive since the HS2 construction started in earnest in Solihull.

The loss of another wildlife habitat at nearby Stan’s – a popular fishing spot – was branded “butchery” last year, although HS2 has insisted that it is also planting a significant number of new trees in this area.

My final stretch of the journey earlier this week took me on to Chelmsley Wood; just the same as over a decade ago.

I travel down Yorkminster Drive and then emerge onto Coleshill Heath Road, where work on another of the rail project’s depots now appears well advanced.

Sue Farmer, a lifelong resident of this area, who I’d met for a separate job earlier this week, had said she was horrified by the scale of these works.

“It’s a white elephant,” she added.

It was often overlooked just how close trains would come to this side of the housing estate, but it’s far clearer now with the development in progress.

Doubtless locals will continue to press for firm commitments about something to compensate for the loss of part of Heath Park in this area.

There are still hopes that some form of skate park, perhaps helping nurture North Solihull’s own Sky Browns, will eventually be created here.

But the dialogue around this issue has been long and drawn-out with a final scheme still to be signed-off. Talks don’t move quite as quick as ultra-modern trains.

What’s next?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a separate piece on how HS2 Ltd sees the next phase of works unfolding.

It has once again pledged to work to engage with residents and the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions allows for more options in terms of how conversations take place.

The project has also hailed changes to local webpages on the works happening in individual areas.

Solihull residents are now able to get access to a breakdown of the latest developments via the “In Your Area” section of the HS2 website.

A bulletin released only this week said: “We have also published local community landing pages for each section of the route. These provide information about the HS2 route within each area.

“We will continue to produce regular updates about the project, including notifications of our upcoming works, how it’s being constructed and what we’re doing to make it less disruptive.”

Although borough councillors and MPs – including those who are advocates of the rail link – will be watching closely in the coming weeks and months.

Several members of Solihull Council’s planning committee recently voiced concerns that the relations between residents were increasingly strained and believed communications needed to improve.

Time will tell whether there is notable change in the way conversations take place, although one thing at least is for sure.

The locations I have visited will look very different again by the time the next silly season rolls around. And a new pair of walking shoes may yet be needed.

 

Words: David Irwin, Local Democracy Reporter


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