Network Rail’s electrification of the line between Preston to Blackpool North is reaching its crescendo, with a tagline promising greener, quieter, and more efficient journeys for all. What though the project has meant for the attendant environmental habitats redolent with railway track sides is utter devastation, culminating in the sweeping away on an industrial scale of foliage that acted as cover for small mammals and birds, and most damningly, a veritable deforestation of many mature, healthy trees that were assumed to dispense the wrong kind of leaves, but had little if any historic previous of causing disruption to services.

Arguably, nowhere along the line has seen greater aesthetic and ecological upheaval than land adjacent to Poulton le Fylde Railway Station(see included photograph). Some distance from the platform and the station’s ornate canopy stood many mature, deciduous specimens that have withstood the test of time and the many storms received by the Fylde Coast. With no record of any of these firmly anchored and healthy trees having disrupted operations, there were few compelling arguments to do anything but at worst initiate a programme of crown reduction or thinning of what could be more described as a woodland in miniature, than simply a mere thicket or grove.

Au contraire. In keeping with what appears to be Network Rail’s blanket policy of what could nebulously be described as vegetation management, the actions perpetrated during one day in January 2018 swept away decades of growth and the area’s visual amenity in an angry whirl of chainsaws, and indifference to what had become a defiant antithesis to Poulton’s rapidly vanishing green spaces long before it mushroomed to its current untenable size. Whatever arguments Network Rail insist on circulating, this ranks as one of the most brutal and disgusting acts perpetrated against the environment that I have been unfortunate enough to witness.

Let my opinion be clear: this habitat for Jay, Woodpecker, and Chiffchaff, to name but a few, was not treated on its own merits but instead consigned to history as part of a blanket policy that seems to conspire against ALL trackside arboriculture. While I understand tree roots can damage drainage and the dispensing of their autumn clothing has been known to occasionally impact upon services, the trees in question had stood and flourished for decades, without causing harm or offence. The sad irony is that Network Rail and its predecessors had failed to manage the area but by allowing its unmolested growth, it had bloomed into a wonderful haven for wildlife that few aside from those out-of-town mandarins charged with such far-reaching decision-making would have looked upon with such antipathetic eyes.

As divisive an issue of removing mature trees adjacent to a fully functioning railway is, the redundant spur to Fleetwood that arcs away from the line to Blackpool North has itself felt the cold, heartless wrath of Network Rail. Sentinels that had stood for decades have themselves been removed in what looks nothing more than a random, and wanton approach because quite simply – they can. Exempt from the need to ask permission to remove the amount of trees which have been, the power wielded by Network Rail carefully relates to the public what it intends to do, but by seemingly keeping the general populace briefed they actually manage to tell them very little, and finally telegraph the explicit details through such strong-arm actions that only become obvious when it is too late to intervene. Even the National Planning Policy Framework(NPPF) – aka The Developers’ Charter – insists on some element of environmental protection and the need for permission to be sought for schemes that risk destabilising ecologically sensitive sites. Despite claims of extensive surveying and consultation with industry-specific experts, it appears Network Rail do not need to ask for permission – they simply only have to say what they intend to do, in language that makes vegetation clearance/management sound like the pruning of a few pesky shrubs.

Famed for being wildlife corridors in even the most urbanized settings, railway lines up and down the country are losing their vital designation as havens for species who can happily coexist juxtaposed to man and machine. Greener trains are one thing, but at the expense of de-greening the environment outside the windows of reconstituted rolling stock deemed appropriate for northerners, is a heavy price to pay. How soon before every living creature is chased away from areas it once called home, simply because of the grasping greed and environmental indifference fostered by a Conservative administration that espouses growth, money, and wealth – an unholy trinity often euphemistically used to describe living on the never-never – first, and foremost. Championing the specious claims by public bodies is one thing, but coupled with emboldening the average person in the street to jump aboard the “greed is good” bandwagon will only have detrimental consequences for the environment and green spaces we once held dear. This is turn waymarks a decisive shift in priorities for the country’s citizens increasingly clinging to the failed notion that money and status solves all problems.

What price do we put on an environment which is unwittingly being caught up in a zeitgeist that many chase, but from which few will ever find satisfaction?

UPDATE:

Since authoring the above piece I received, in response to directly voicing my concerns to Network Rail, a detailed reply to the many pertinent issues raised.

Confidentiality precludes me from divulging the contents of Network Rail’s reply; although my opposition to such a massive loss of trackside habitat remains, I acknowledge the very difficult task Network Rail have of balancing their ecological responsibilities with a need to deliver a first class railway service demanded by franchise operators, the general public, and central government.

I am happy to put on record my appreciation of the time afforded by Network Rail in detailing a robust, thorough, and non-generic response, and their willingness to offset some of the lost arboriculture by investigating the viability of mitigation planting in some of the municipal boroughs affected by the loss of trackside tree-cover.

February 11th 2019