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Network rail review holds promise for the environment

The Government's independent review of Network Rail’s current lineside vegetation management practice was published on 28 November 2018. It reveals a blunt assessment of the current approach and gives recommendations that should see Network Rail moving in a much better direction, with a more sympathetic approach to its environmental responsibilities. 

The report’s bottom line

Chair of the review, John Varley, drew three main conclusions (quoted from the report Valuing nature – a railway for people and wildlife...):

  1. Whilst there are pockets of best practice across the network, the overall approach to vegetation management is reactive and inconsistent. There remains a significant percentage of the rail network which is non-compliant with the Standard in terms of minimizing potential hazards from lineside vegetation.
  2. Network Rail does not take into account accepted environmental best practice throughout all of its estate.
  3. With the right vision, leadership and governance, a new culture could be established that would drive improved outcomes for safety, people and the environment.
A non-health and safety related clearance of trees from a railway embankment in Derbyshire (Photo: Judy Davidson)
A non-health and safety related clearance of trees from a railway embankment in Derbyshire (Photo: Judy Davidson)

Work to do for Network Rail

We think the review has been comprehensive, thorough and balanced. It is clear that Network Rail has much to do in terms of:

  • making the cultural shift towards valuing nature as an asset rather than a liability
  • setting out a clear vision for biodiversity across its 52,000 hectare linear estate
  • implementing genuine change for the better.

This includes developing route-specific plans for the sympathetic management of wildlife.

These must link to Government strategy and objectives, such as the 25 Year Environment Plan, the principles set out in the Making Space for Nature review and its commitment to Net Gain for Biodiversity as per the Biodiversity 2020 report.

Our view at the Trust

It is imperative that, as a Government owned estate, Network Rail is making a positive contribution to national environmental objectives. This includes not being responsible for net deforestation.

Whilst we wholeheartedly agree that action should be taken where trees pose a threat to people’s health and safety, it does not follow that because a tree could fall on a line, it always will. Trees always present a hazard where they meet people but they seldom present a risk.

The report even illustrates how trees and trains can co-exist with a case study of best practice (see page 14) where some wonderful old Sequoia trees near Bradford upon Avon have been spared felling through careful ongoing management.

There should be much more of this kind of approach.

Tree cover and connected landscapes are essential for wildlife (Photo: Alamy)
Tree cover and connected landscapes are essential for wildlife (Photo: Alamy)

The report's recommendations

Moving forward, the review made six broad recommendations, detailed in the final report:

1. The Government must set out a clear policy for Network Rail in terms of delivering for the environment.
2. Appropriate governance must be put in place at organisation, route and project level.

Whilst Network Rail:

3. Should publish an ambitious vision for the lineside estate.
4. Must value and manage its lineside estate as an asset.
5. Must improve its communications with communities and key stakeholders.
6. Should lead a cultural change for valuing nature and the environment across the organisation.

We find little to complain about in these! What’s more, the Department of Transport has accepted all of the report’s recommendations, and Network Rail has agreed to create a plan to put them into action.

Next steps

We now need to make sure that the recommendations are put into practice. We will be lobbying hard to make sure that happens – any works affecting biodiversity should leave it in a better state than before (the principle of ‘Biodiversity Net Gain’).

In particular we will be fighting the case for trees, because within the Government’s own commitment to net gain for biodiversity (to be achieved by 2040) there is a particular risk.

There is an idea that habitats are swappable ­– that you can replace “low quality” woodland with “high quality” grassland. This reduction of nature to a mere species count is of course a gross simplification that we simply don’t accept.

The focus must be firmly on canopy cover – it’s not just the trees we’re interested in but all the other wildlife they support and the way they connect landscapes.

We will hold Government to account on the findings of the Varley Review, and expect other organisations identified in the report to do likewise.

Network Rail certainly faces challenges in managing its estate, but it must do more to provide a network that’s safe for its staff and customers, while still delivering for biodiversity.

Your voice makes a difference

Finally, we want to thank thousands of our supporters who helped to influence the review by responding to the online consultation. We know that your input made a huge contribution to the outcome. Hopefully you’ll be able to enjoy more wildlife-friendly train journeys as a result!

But this isn’t the only railway-related challenge our trees and woods face. The latest HS2 plans have revealed at least 19 ancient woods could be destroyed. Stand up for this irreplaceable habitat and say no to the plans. Join our campaign and defend these precious woods.

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