What is HS2?
HS2 stands for High Speed Rail 2, and is planned to be the second major high-speed rail line in Britain. Once completed, the railway will link London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and other major cities in the UK. A company named HS2 was set up in January 2009 by the Department for Transport and the preferred route options were announced in 2010. The first phase of the railway was due to open at the end of 2026 but in a written statement to Parliament in September 2019, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said it could now be 2028-2031 before the first trains run on the route. The expectation is that the full high-speed line will ‘open between 2035 and 2040’.
The project is said to be the ‘most demanding and exciting transport projects in Europe’. It’s purpose is to provide transportation links between regions across the United Kingdom, reduce journey times, and ‘create economic benefits and thousands of jobs’. The belief is increased capacity will lessen pressure on outdated rail services and help transition from a reliance on air and road to rail, and become a low carbon option for long distance travel.
At first, this seems like an enormous step towards carbon neutrality and a more sustainable future but a deeper look shows that this is not the truth at all.
Problems: the environment, the pandemic and more
On their website, HS2 Ltd claims that ‘In the future, with electricity generation fully decarbonised, using HS2 will be fully zero carbon’ and that using HS2 will be a low carbon option. However, last year HS2 Ltd themselves released a paper stating that even after 120 years, the operation of HS2 will produce a net increase in the greenhouse gas emissions — and this doesn’t include the carbon emissions during the building process.
And this is just the first of many problems with the project. In a letter to the government, RSPB, in collaboration with the Barn Owl Trust and four branches of the Wildlife trust said that they ‘believe HS2 phase 1 will eventually kill a nationally significant number of barn owls, and phase 2 will merely add to that toll.’ In particular, the rare woodland reliant Bechstein's bat will be severely affected, as the species normally dwells in mature native woodland. Mature woodland takes a long time to develop, is virtually irreplaceable and cannot be replaced by planting new trees, as HS2 Ltd planned to do. 89,000 saplings planted between 2017 and 2018 died due to the summer drought because they were not watered. Instead they were replaced as it was more ‘cost effective’, which clearly shows HS2’s neglect towards their promise to mitigate the environmental impact of the project.
The number of ancient woodlands which are being destroyed for this project is rising all the time; the Woodland Trust say that at least 108 ancient woods are at risk of damage and loss. Trees are cut down not only for the route itself, but also so that roads can be built for vehicles to bring equipment.
In addition, the official review of HS2 led by former HS2 chairman Douglas Oakervee warns that the project might cost in excess of £100bn, just under double the estimate made in 2015. After the billions pumped into creating the line, the train is estimated to shave only 28 minutes off the journey from Manchester to London.
On 15 April 2020, the Department for Transport gave HS2 Ltd a Notice to Proceed, meaning they could continue to work. Despite the continuing lockdown, construction workers were sent back to work while following social distancing rules. The contractors are coming into areas with rural communities with many of elderly residents, putting both communities at risk. Personally, considering the UK is facing economic turmoil in the near future, I believe giving HS2 priority is completely illogical and wrong.
People have been protesting against HS2 since its conception and residents of Buckinghamshire have been battling the government since 2012. The group ‘Stop HS2’ is a national campaign against HS2, and has been setting up protection protest camps on the construction sites of HS2, using direct action to protest the destruction of nature. Recent protests have been pushing the message ‘NHS not HS2’ but have been faced with evictions, violent abuse from the National Evictions Team, and illegal water supply blocks.
In April 2020 Chris Packham, naturalist and television broadcaster, launched an injunction to halt construction work and a judicial review of the decision to allow HS2 to proceed. His case was dismissed by the high court who concluded: “The clearance works were long ago authorised by Parliament and there is a strong public interest in ensuring that, in a democracy, activities sanctioned by Parliament are not stopped by individuals merely because they do not personally agree with them.” Packham has decided to appeal the decision and continues his fight against the destruction of wildlife.
Protesters at various sites continue to fight, but at the moment it seems that HS2 will continue through the global pandemic. The HS2 Rebellion are currently working on a campaign named Risky Business, which aims to collectively apply pressure to HS2 work in lockdown through online actions. Many protesters are sharing their experiences at the camp; to learn more watch this video and this heartbreaking account of an activist at one of the sites.
There are so many ways the money spent on HS2 could be used and it’s upsetting to see how the government continues to fund wildlife destruction despite declaring a climate crisis, especially during a global pandemic. Our priority right now has to be on the most vulnerable in our society and on our healthcare system which supports us every single day. After looking at the facts and learning more about HS2, I don’t believe HS2 is a step in the right direction at all.