Climate campaigners should block road-building not HS2

HS2 will improve local rail services across England and reduce our CO2 emissions.

Gareth Dennis is a railway engineer and host of the #RailNatter series, a leftist take on transport issues.

At least until recently, Britain had a proud tradition of environmental activism by direct action, including illicit tunnelling.

Protestors emulating ‘the Great Escape’ used this form of disruption in their opposition to the M11 link road back in the mid-1990s.

Though they didn’t stop the link road from being built, their efforts contributed to the demise of Thatcher’s Roads for Prosperity programme of road building.

Sadly, this demise was only really a hiatus. Skip forwards two decades and Thatcher’s road building programme has risen from the dead in the form of the Road Investment Strategy.

In fact, the first phase has already been delivered, and RIS2 is now pushing ahead, promising 4000 miles of new tarmac (despite the widespread understanding that new roads solve nothing).

You’d think that the protestors would be back with gusto, yet there’s no sign of them as the diggers continue to churn up the landscape and fell trees at an alarming rate. Somehow, environmental activism has been fixated on a new target: the High Speed 2 (HS2) railway.

London’s Euston Square Gardens is now home to a new generation of burrowing protestors opposing a new electrified railway line. For me, as a railway engineer, environmentalist and socialist, this is baffling.

Transport is the UK’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions and, whilst there are lots of underlying reasons for this, fundamentally it is because too many people/things use road transport.

This has only become more true as COVID has altered travel patterns – peak road usage exceeded 2019 levels in 2020, despite many people working from home or being furloughed.

We need rail to absorb a hefty amount of traffic: in fact, even with overall travel reducing, we will need rail to double its capacity by the middle of the century.

By segregating high speed trains onto their own line, you untangle the complex mixture of slow and fast services that currently constrain capacity, allowing the remaining services to bunch up more closely together.

This enables a doubling or tripling of capacity on existing railway lines into cities like Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds with little additional cost.

Build the new railway for modern-day high speeds and you don’t just do this for the West Coast Main Line, but also for the Midland Main Line, East Coast Main Line (and several other cross-country routes). That enables lots more local, commuter and freight services across the country.

There is no quicker and cheaper way to unlock a step-change in capacity on our railway network than HS2.

So why are environmentalists and many folks on the left of the political spectrum so firmly against it?

Well, I’m sorry to say that it is because they’ve taken the lead from free market think tanks who wrote most if not all of the common arguments used against the project over a decade ago. Many of the claims in the Institute of Economic Affairs’s 2011 anti-HS2 report have been reworked on repeat ever since.

Falsehoods like the ‘120 years before carbon neutrality’ claim or the ‘this money can be better spent elsewhere’ claim have all been inherited first by little- and big-C conservative opposition groups, then by the Green Party of England and Wales (GPEW), and now by Extinction Rebellion and these subterranean demonstrators.

So while RIS2 is progressing largely unopposed, the focus remains on opposing a sustainable transport project.

Green campaigners and members of the GPEW need only look across the Scottish border to see how green progressives can take the lead on transport policy.

The Scottish Greens’ Rail for All report is well worth a look to see what a detailed, forward-looking vision looks like. It also throws shade onto the GPEW’s untenable anti-rail stance in its opening paragraphs.

We on the left really should pay close attention if we find ourselves on the same side as low-tax, low-investment, pro-austerity libertarians. The HS2 saga is a case where this connection seems to have gone unnoticed.

Note: Here’s the other side of the argument

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