Network Rails’ Line Side Vegetation Management Policy – An Ignominious Waste of Money?

The concept of ‘green and blue tramways’ is popular across Europe, but missing from the UK – where the green and blue ‘corridors’ are provided by hedgerows, verges and canals. This separating of such corridors into their respective functions, even if now redundant in terms of human use, is detrimental to the perception of the nature that colonises all these areas, it becomes fragmented and thus more easily abused by misguided (and too close to be potentially illegal for comfort) activity. As is seen by the frankly inexplicable actions by Network Rail, which just don’t seem to make any sense; the description of a ‘scorched earth’ policy by the Tree Savers of Whitstable is sadly the only explanation of their policy which fits.

The importance and value of these corridors in both biodiversity and wider landscape terms is not lost on many planners working in the UK and abroad and the study of infrastructure against nature is largely balanced in favour of nature, perhaps too much in some other countries – as anyone driving on the périphérique around Paris can easily see in places as the rapid succession of naturalised (often non native invasive species) vegetation destroys some infrastructure as well as ensuring regular traffic jams due to fallen tree limbs.

Many years ago I remember a talk on road and rail verges advocating their potential as a sustainable source of biomass by short rotation coppice, with a very handy adjacent extraction route. The idea was instantly trashed by forestry peers stating that the public, who struggle with the clear felling of remote plantations, would simply not tolerate such practice – biodiversity would also need a refuge, fingers of green space to which to retreat during times of cyclical harvesting, which are clearly not spared by the Network rail lineside vegetation management system, which seems to have no defined buffer zone and removes vegetation at a considerable distance away from the tracks and underlying infrastructure.

Railways are one of the very few pan-international habitats. Case study is available from across the world and therefore all global engineering (and wider) research with regards lineside vegetation management is viable and should be considered.

But Network Rail appear to have a unique and incompatible lineside management regime with all other case study, even at odds with research and guidelines produced in the UK .  And when climate change threatens this valuable and most sustainable of transport infrastructure the current perceived vegetation management policy is also seemingly at odds with the recommendations (back in 2003) which not only call for further research but stress the importance of maintaining embankment vegetation for long term safety purposes.

The costs of large scale mechanical clearance because of a failure to apply consistent sensitive and targeted vegetation management rise even further when it is decided to ignore the potential consequences of such work carried out at a time of year contrary to all guidance in reference to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (and in particular the amendment to this act in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, where the new offence of ‘reckless’ disturbance is introduced) as well as the huge loss of ecosystem services values. Add to this the cost of protest – halted work, last minute negotiations and subsequent need to pay for external independent ecological surveys and one wonders how Network Rail can justify the costs of such an approach to themselves let alone the taxpayers (although they clearly spend no money in PR in this regard).

And in a year when high visitor numbers are expected to visit an Olympic ceremony celebrating the British landscape the nearest potential visible vestiges of this rich, green and pleasant land – railway verges, will be noticeably devoid of anything green or pleasant leaving many tourists to believe that such a landscape is as mythical as some of the stories born out of it.

Where do the large containers filled with the wood chippings of the current favoured management regimes of Network Rail go. ‘An area the size of the Forest of Dean’ chipped and simply going to waste is a monumental financial waste also, a mammoth missed opportunity, albeit based on what any forester would consider a non sustainable management system when looking at the protestors photos and videos of the resulting land after the preferred system of management currently used by Network rail is carried out.

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