We don’t drive at 200mph, so why do we need HS2?

Cool looking trains, but they’d still be cool running at 125mph on current lines

The reason why Shinkansen trains are accepted in Japan is because they were built at a time when everyone bought into the fast life idea. Practically no one questioned it. The economic benefits, GDP and all of that. Those things that a rapidly increasing contingent of us now know to be unnecessary, and are actually killing us.

It was at a time when we didn’t have connectivity like we do now. How would you justify high speed rail now when you could take a limited express or a sleeper service and work on the way with wi-fi or 5G? The answer is, you don’t talk about it, or you make up some bullshit about it taking strain off the existing network. Well, I’m no railway engineer, but I imagine that building more standard lines in our current railway system would also do that for an infinitely lower cost. Both environmentally and financially.

Who says “it would help the economy if I could drive my car to Manchester at 200mph”. Not even Jeremy Clarkson would say something so ridiculous. Well, I don’t think he has anyway. And who would want to take a coach at 200mph? I definitely don’t. There are enough coach crashes around the world as it is, and I can’t imagine it would be a fun ride, if such an insane bus actually existed outside the realm of video games.

So, we don’t need HS2 because the speed benefit makes no sense if it’s not applied elsewhere (not that it makes much difference to journey times anyway); and because of the connectivity and remote working we now enjoy. But what about the environmental impact? We know that the UK is one of the most nature depleted countries in the world, and we also know that the route of HS2 just happens to trample on 32 ancient woodlands directly, and another 29 indirectly. And considering the fragility of these precious ecosystems, it’s unlikely that those 29 will survive at all.

We can’t lose this. Photo credit: waronwildlife.co.uk

If HS2 was necessary, which it isn’t; the obvious question would be why didn’t they build alongside existing motorways where there is often a lot of space and certainly great grid connections? Is it because nature is effectively worthless under this economic system and therefore an easy target? Is it because the rich business travellers who would be frequenting this service would like a nicer view out of the windows than a motorway? Is it because our leaders don’t care about nature at all and sadistically would enjoy trampling on it? My guess it’s a bit of all three.

And then there’s the climate implications of all of this. We know that in order to give ourselves a chance of survival in the face of the climate catastrophe, we have to slash consumption by as much as possible, and we have to live slower and smaller lives. We will travel less, and when we do, we will go slower and on the ground unless absolutely essential (visiting family overseas for example, not for business travel). We’re already seeing a resurgence of sleeper trains across Europe, and we need to see it here too. We do have a couple of services domestically, but we need to see more; and we desperately need sleepers that use the channel tunnel and serve the major European cities.

But obviously the climate implications of HS2 don’t end there. There is the immense amount of emissions generated during the building of the railway in the first place; but time is also a huge aspect. Because we only have a handful of years at the most to slash our emissions to as close to zero as possible; we can no longer take on decade long mega projects like this (or Hinckley Point C for example). There will be the odd exception, such as a massive upgrade to our existing railway infrastructure that can’t be completed in just a few years. But generally speaking, we have to think as short term as possible. This sounds counterintuitive since we’ve always been taught growing up to think about our long term future. Unless you’re in business in which case short term profit over long term stability has been the name of the game. But as long as the Earth’s climate is in the disastrous state it is, we have to think day by day with a single-minded focus on how to slash our consumption, and therefore our emissions as much as possible. Very little else matters. The byproduct of which will be providing a better, cleaner, fairer world to everyone, and allowing ourselves a chance at a future. In addition, we will be protecting and restoring our natural areas and our precious wildlife. It’s easy to do. It simply requires doing nothing.

Just like with Covid, we solve the world’s biggest crises by just slowing down and stopping. Lounging around and being lazy can stop runaway climate change? If you’re anything like me, that’ll sound pretty appealing.