HS2 protest

Three weeks after contractors discovered a network of tunnels beneath the HS2 works in Euston, the evictions of the remaining protestors have begun. HS2 and high-speed rail in general have always posed a problem for the green movement. The Green Party of England and Wales has opposed HS2 for some time, but some supporters disagree, as Bright Green has reflected in the past, and as the pro-HS2 group ‘Greens4HS2‘ would attest. The Campaign for Better Transport, the most influential campaigning organisation for public transport, has generally supported the project with some caveats.

For my latest book Roads Runways and Resistance, I interviewed civil servants and advisors involved in the development of HS2. I also interviewed many protestors, against HS2 and other issues, including Dan Hooper (aka ‘Swampy’) who is still inside that tunnel in Euston. For most of the book I try to tell the ‘inside story’ keeping my own views out of it, until the final chapters. On some of the issues that sparked the protest movements, road building, airport expansion and climate change, I have very strong views (which have earned me a criminal record) but I felt more ambivalent about HS2 when I began researching those chapters. What I found has changed my views.

Like most big prestige projects, this one began with a solution, rather than an open-minded analysis. International comparisons weighed heavily – other countries have got high-speed rail, why can’t we? There was also a deeply-ingrained belief that big transport infrastructure must be good for the economy, as a matter of principle.  The search for evidence to justify the project followed later. The first minister to push the case within government was Lord Adonis, under the last Labour government from 2008 to 2010. A political advisor within that government told me:

[Adonis] had made his judgement that it was the right thing to do. I think it is fair to say that the analysis that was then done on the alternatives, by and large, was to use arguments as to why they were not as good… It wasn’t purely done by the economists in the department. He would challenge their numbers if some of the alternatives were getting closer to HS2 than might be comfortable…”

One of Adonis’s other justifications related to capacity. He said “we will be at saturation point on some lines in 15 to 20 years”. That is the argument most commonly used by HS2’s supporters in the transport world today. It is true that before the pandemic many rail lines were operating beyond capacity. If you study the DfT’s statistics on overcrowding, you will see a complicated picture. Some of the worst affected lines would be relieved by HS2. Many would not – e.g. the lines into London from the South or East or the Trans-Pennine line – and some would be exacerbated by more passengers transferring from HS2, unless they were also upgraded. An impartial expert studying that evidence for the first time would almost certainly recommend many smaller projects rather than spending over £100bn on one Y-shaped line.

Some of the most shocking evidence I unearthed related to attempts to conceal cost overruns from parliament and the public. The statements made by HS2 Ltd and the allegations made by whistleblowers cannot be reconciled – someone was clearly lying. If you read the evidence in the book, you may form your own conclusions about who that might be, and why.

The escalating costs make it much less likely that governments will pay for HS2 and all the other improvements we need to the rail network. They also undermine the claims about its economic benefits. As I have written elsewhere, new roads or railways can move economic activity from one place to another, but no-one has ever proved that transport projects increase the size of national economies. There are many reasons for treating the claims of promoters – and their economists – with scepticism. To cite just two reasons: money spent on one big project reduces spending on other things, or it increases taxation, which will reduce economic activity elsewhere.

I have deliberately left the most important issue – environmental impacts – until last. Any expansion in rail capacity will have some impact on local environments – removing some trees, for example. But the political desire for speed ruled out alternative solutions, which might have reduced that impact – by widening existing lines or following motorway corridors, for example.

HS2’s own analysis shows that the lines will emit more carbon in the construction phase than they will save over 60 years of use. Before the HS2 bills passed through parliament, they conducted two separate analyses of the first line to the West Midlands and the extension to Crewe. Interestingly, the extension was much worse; its construction would emit 80 times the tiny carbon saving from its incremental use over 60 years.

That point is important for the protest movement. All of the seven movements I reviewed in Roads Runways and Resistance achieved some impact, though not necessarily in the way the protestors imagined. Direct action has never stopped a road, railway or runway once construction began, but it has stopped many other damaging projects we have never even heard of.

As my heart goes out to Dan and the others underground, I doubt that they will be able to stop the first HS2 line now; but for the later phases, who knows? The recent report from National Infrastructure Commission has resurrected some of the alternatives that Lord Adonis and his successors have worked so hard to bury. Regional improvements across the North and Midlands would be more cost-effective than extensions to HS2, they conclude – and they doubt that we can afford both.

Evidence and rational arguments rarely change political decisions on their own. As I found with several times in Roads Runways and Resistance, it sometimes takes mass protest or direct action to give scientific or technical evidence the weight it deserves.

Steve Melia is a Senior Lecturer in Transport and Planning at the University of the West of England.  Roads, Runways and Resistance is published by Pluto Press.

PS. We hope you enjoyed this article. Bright Green has got big plans for the future to publish many more articles like this. You can help make that happen. Please donate to Bright Green now.

PPS. Bright Green has an exciting series of events coming up. Join us for debates, interviews and much more.