Railway HS2 – Curzon Street station site, Eastside Birmingham. Photo: Robin Stott

Opposing HS2 in the name of reduction damages the working-class green movement, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh

Boris Johnson’s announcement of a green light for HS2, the proposed high-speed railway between London, Birmingham and the north, has not put an end to the determined campaign against it, with Chris Packham reportedly considering a legal challenge. The campaigners against HS2 argue that it is a vanity project for Johnson, the prime-ministerial equivalent of the Boris buses he introduced when he was London mayor. While it is presented as part of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’, it may in fact simply make it easier for London to extract more resources from the provinces.

The Oakervee Report, which concluded that HS2 should go ahead, makes clear that the projected cost of building HS2 has ballooned, to £87.7bn. The report does not consider ticket prices but if the West Coast Mainline is anything to go by, it is likely that they would be high, meaning that the HS2 services would mainly be full of business travellers. As an extremely expensive way of shaving forty minutes off the journey from London to Birmingham, there seems little to recommend HS2 as a project.

Part of the environmental case against HS2 is that it would actually increase carbon emissions. High-speed trains use more power than slower ones, and HS2’s own modelling shows that most passengers on the new high-speed trains would be switching from the existing train lines. In other words, that for most passengers, HS2 would be a more carbon-intensive form of travel. The original case for high-speed rail was that it would compete with domestic flights, but according to HS2’s modelling, there would only be an 8% modal shift from air to HS2.

Defenders of HS2 counter this by pointing out that it will provide necessary increases to rail capacity. The argument here isn’t quite that the existing fast connections between Birmingham, Manchester and London are at capacity. Some of the fast trains on the West Coast Mainline are packed to the gills, but many are half-empty due to the eye-watering fares. However, the way in which the existing main lines (not just the West Coast Mainline) have to accommodate high-speed trains, freight trains and local stopping trains means that the available train paths to add any sort of capacity are limited. With express trains taking priority, the options for adding more local trains are restricted to what won’t hold up the fastest services. If the high-speed trains on the existing lines can be reduced in number because HS2 is taking the strain, then that frees up train paths for other services.

There does therefore seem to be a case that HS2, or something like it, would be a necessary part of a much wider green infrastructure project to enable people to shift from cars to trains, and to get freight off the roads and onto rail. This is clearly not what Johnson has just approved. Since the value of HS2 would be in the other improvements it would enable, it’s reasonable to take a position that it is only worthwhile as part of that more far-reaching package of green infrastructure work.

This is however a long way from where much of the anti HS2 campaign is at. The environmental case against HS2 seems often to be less about the specifics of this infrastructure project than it is against features that any infrastructure work would share. This is notable, for example, in Chris Packham’s objections, when he talks about the environmental damage of ‘projects of this scale’. It is true that HS2, as a major construction project, will be responsible for carbon emissions, but that is going to be true of any work to our transport infrastructure, not just this one. It is also inevitable that building railway lines, or reopening old ones, is going to entail construction on some countryside. The Woodland Trust has highlighted how HS2 will affect more than 100 tracts of ancient woodland, but it would be difficult to pick a route through the Chilterns and into the West Midlands which avoided such woodland.

HS2 is revealing two distinct positions on how we should deal with the issue of greenhouse gas emissions from transport. On the one hand, there is the view that we need to shift travel to more sustainable methods: making it possible for people to use public transport rather than cars, encouraging rail freight and so on. This approach doesn’t aim to stop people from making the journeys they need or want to make, it just seeks to make them as low carbon as possible. This is the approach of green new deal-type proposals: creating jobs by creating new green infrastructure. The other way, which the campaign against HS2 broadly seems to be taking, is to view travel as a problem regardless of the mode used. In this view, the way to reduce car journeys is just for people to stop making those journeys; creating the infrastructure for them to switch to rail is something to be opposed.

This second approach is in line with some recent arguments that the climate crisis will require us to limit all sorts of activity. There is, for example, the widely-reported argument from a think-tank called Autonomy that the working week would have to be cut to nine hours to reduce carbon emissions. While reducing the time we’re expected to work is always welcome, the detail of this proposal makes it much less worker-friendly than it would appear at first glance. It is not spelled out in the report, but it is clearly anticipated that the reduction in working hours would entail a reduction in wages, since one effect would be a marked decrease in material consumption. The proposal would also only seem to work if we’re prevented from doing anything carbon-emitting with their free time, so no trips out on your extra days off. It seems less an argument for an improvement in workers’ quality of life than it is for us all to spend much of our time sitting quietly in the dark.

The end point of the argument that human activity in general has to be drastically limited to take care of climate change is, of course, that people shouldn’t exist at all. There are in fact arguments that the best thing for the planet would be for humans to go extinct. This may seem a long way from the debates about HS2, but it shows the logical conclusion of a trend in green thinking which sees people as inherently a problem.

Ever since the Duke of Wellington opposed the first British railways on the grounds that they would ‘enable the lower orders to go uselessly wandering about the country’, access to travel for everyone, not just the rich, has been an important right. Marx pointed out that while capitalist business owners want to limit everything the worker does outside work so that they can keep their wages low, for the worker, leisure pursuits outside work are ‘his only share of civilisation which distinguishes him from the slave.’[1] If in the environmental movement we find ourselves arguing for limitations in that share of civilisation, it’s a clue that we’re maybe getting something wrong.

HS2 is shaping up to be a Johnsonian vanity project that most of us would never be able to afford to use. The best way to respond to its approval would however be to build a campaign with the rail unions to get the improvements in passenger services and expansion of rail freight that it will make possible. If we oppose it simply because it is a major infrastructure project, we are then saying that we can’t shift activity to low-carbon alternatives. We are concluding that there is no possibility of a green new deal; all we can do is reduce. That sort of green austerity is no basis on which to achieve the working-class green movement we need. 


[1] Karl Marx, Grundrisse. Foundations of a Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft), (Penguin/New Left Review, London 1973), pp.286-7.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.