• Safer Highways

Cycle paths to run alongside HS2 for 200 miles

The route of HS2, the high-speed railway line from London to Manchester, is to become an unlikely tourist and leisure destination, with a trail for cyclists and walkers that will eventually run for 200 miles.

Tunnelling and excavation for the railway began 18 months ago but ministers have now belatedly tried to seize the opportunity to carve out an extra route alongside.

Andrew Stephenson, the minister responsible for high speed rail, has asked HS2 Ltd to devise cycling and walking paths by repurposing temporary construction roads, and combining them with local cycle schemes. He said it would “provide a wider active travel network along the spine of HS2”.

The cycle path is expected to be 3m wide, with a grass verge separating it from apath for walkers 2.5m wide. It will be set at some distance from the track, where a fleet of 54 trains will speed by at up to 225mph, reaching Manchester in 71 minutes from London Euston.

Work on one 50-mile section of the pathway is under way. The Buckinghamshire Greenway will run from the Colne Valley in the south through the Chilterns area of outstanding national beauty to the National Trust properties of Waddesdon Manor and Stowe.

For a small number of diehards, completing the full stretch from London to Manchester could become a challenge comparable to walking the full length of one of the national trails such as the Pennine Way, which is 268 miles long, or Offa’s Dyke, which roughly follows the boundary of England and Wales for 177 miles. The South West Coastal Path stretches for 630 miles.

Sources say the cycle path and walkway will benefit people living on the route by providing a traffic-free alternative to the school run as well as commuting and deliveries. One said Downing Street had not yet approved the scheme because it was waiting to be convinced that it would be popular. Boris Johnson has previously said that he regards bike lanes as “huge 24-hour gyms, free and open to everyone”.

The construction of HS2 has involved tearing up ancient woodlands and fields for two railway tracks with an overall width of only 19 metres. Most of the communities affected will not even have the consolation of using the high-speed trains: for northbound trains the first stop after Old Oak Common, west London, is an interchange near Birmingham airport.

HS2 has a budget of about £74 billion to Manchester. The first section to Birmingham is due for completion between 2029 and 2033 and it is expected to arrive in Manchester between 2035 and 2041.

The cycle route is likely to be funded from the government’s £2 billion cycling and walking budget and may be overseen by Active Travel England, which awards funding for active travel schemes and is chaired by Chris Boardman, the Olympic gold medal-winning cyclist.

Although Britain already has a national cycle network of almost 13,000 miles of signed routes, more than 7,500 miles of that is on roads and only 5,220 is on traffic-free paths, including disused railways and canal towpaths, and they are of varying quality. It is overseen by Sustrans, a charity.

Phil Jones, chairman of PJA, a consultancy that co-authored the original feasibility study for the project in 2013, said: “The whole is greater than the parts. You could build a hundred cycling schemes in a hundred towns, but by linking them together it becomes something more substantial.”

Plans for the trail from London to Manchester were warmly welcomed by Nicholas Crane, the author and TV presenter, who pioneered long-distance cycle rides in the 1980s, including cycling up Africa’s highest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro, at 19,341ft and cycling to the point in the Gobi desert identified as the “pole of inaccessibility” — the most distant point on earth from the sea.

He said: “The idea to bridge the north and the south with a net zero highway for walkers and cyclists would be unbelievably exciting. The whole point about HS2 is to escape from the motor car, and this would be a parallel route for walkers and cyclists. I think this could help turn around people’s antipathy to HS2. I’ll be running for my road bike to give it a go."

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