High speed train at a station

Sections of the UK’s terminally incoherent environmental movement have chosen High Speed 2 (HS2) as their latest object of opposition. The planned high-speed rail system was first proposed in 2009 during the latter days of New Labour by then-Transport Secretary Lord Adonis. Construction finally began in 2020 and has been met with renewed criticism and escalating protest since. The Green Party of England and Wales have made its opposition a headline policy while a series of protest camps, including the latest month-long protest in an elaborate network of underground tunnels at the Euston Square site, seek to disrupt the project.

We need HS2

Curious observers may wonder why environmentalists are choosing to exert so much energy and resource opposing rail infrastructure. Indeed, as the climate crisis intensifies it becomes increasingly urgent that we transition our transport system away from the domination of polluting private cars and short-haul aviation. The expansion, electrification and decarbonisation of rail therefore makes sense as a headline demand for environmentalists. Jon Stone has argued persuasively that although ‘speed’ is in the name, the real purpose of HS2 is expanding rail capacity. Government has done a poor job of explaining this, but right now many of our rail lines are full. I’m sure we’ve all endured the indignity of sitting on the floor of a packed train (probably Cross Country or Virgin Trains) sweating cobs as dozens of fellow passengers tread on your ankles. Right now quicker inter-city trains share the same lines with slower commuter or local trains. Because trains cannot overtake each other on the same track, this severely limits the amount of services of each that can run. HS2 would allow more trains of each kind to run on separate tracks.

Alex Hern has levelled similar criticisms of the HS2 communications strategy, comparing it to the 5G rollout which also emphasises speed over broader benefits. For what it’s worth, I think the argument for capacity is a strong one and I’ve not seen opponents of HS2 offer a compelling rebuttal. However, this doesn’t mean we should abandon the case for speed. As much as I love travelling by train, spending as little time on them between cities is undeniably a good thing. So is being able to connect in person for work or leisure with maximum ease. Quicker inter-city and local train travel will further incentivise using public transport over cars and planes. Increasing supply should make tickets cheaper too.

Criticisms of HS2 often include the lobbying efforts of regional airports for the project. How can I argue that HS2 will take planes out of the sky when Manchester and Birmingham airports are so keen on it? Well it’s true that many of us (including those businesses we dislike) will benefit from better rail connections. Our task, alongside supporting investment in rail infrastructure, is to vociferously oppose airport expansion as part of a broader transformation of our transport system.

Any project conceived under New Labour and progressed under successive Tory governments is bound to be delivered with flaws. HS2 does not guarantee decarbonisation or climate justice on its own. However, HS2 will be essential infrastructure for decarbonisation as we fight for a broader vision of a publicly owned transport system, free at the point of use, connecting every part of this country and internationally too.

Never mind the cost

Arguments against HS2 have tended to focus on the growing cost of the project, as well as environmental impacts including tree felling. High profile opponents of HS2 have regularly joined activists in comparing the cost of the project to the annual budget for the NHS. ‘NHS not HS2’ was the banner of HS2 Rebellion protestors at the Euston construction site in May 2020. It is entirely self-defeating for environmentalists to oppose infrastructure projects on the basis of cost. The investment required for the economic mobilisation of a Green New Deal will be huge. We should be making the case for significant public spending, not reinforcing neoliberal arguments against it. It is even more self-defeating to pit investment in national transport infrastructure against spending on public services. It simply reinforces the logics of austerity that have dominated our politics for the past decade with such devastating consequences.

The other focal point of opposition to HS2 is consistent with a major trend in 21st century Green politics: that cutting down trees is literally the worst thing we can do. It’s on this point that the incoherence of many HS2 opponents comes to light. The Green Party of England & Wales’ policy is to scrap HS2 but support 26 new major train lines. I’m not sure how the Greens think they can avoid cutting down trees for the lines they do support.

Of course, I don’t think cutting down trees is a good thing. If possible, it should be avoided and regardless we should be planting a whole lot more. However, we do have to accept that if we want to build things like rail, those things may have to take the place of some trees.

Climbing up the wrong tree

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate movement was largely ground to a halt. Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests were paused, and school strikes cancelled. It has been frustrating to see opposition to HS2 persist as one of the few environmental direct-action campaigns during this time. All of this leaves me wondering whether this is what a socialist government prepared to implement a Green New Deal would face. Never mind the forces of capital, the deep state or the far-right. Would the UK’s environmental activists be the biggest internal opposition to an economic mobilisation for climate justice? Will all attempts to build low-carbon infrastructure face a resistance of direct-action? Factions of XR and the Green Party and big names like Chris Packham and George Monbiot represent a worrying tendency within the UK’s environmental movement. When push comes to shove, we cannot rely on them to not oppose the most decisive measures for decarbonisation. Because they require building things.

Engineer Gareth Dennis is right to point out that the Tories’ road building program has been met with minimal organised opposition compared to HS2. It is absurd that Greens and XR have chosen to prioritise opposition to HS2 at exactly the moment we should be making the case for mass public investment and low-carbon infrastructure on this scale as part of a Green New Deal. This tendency should urgently shift its focus to the real enemies of environmental justice: the fossil fuel industry, finance capital, and new roads and airport expansion.

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Image credit: Les Chatfield – Creative Commons