When is progress not progress? When scything a railway through the middle of Britain comes at the expense of the countryside the builders and planners are seeking to shrink.
Or so say HS2 Rebellion: opponents of the High Speed 2 railway line.
HS2 will be a luxury service running between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, shaving off 30 minutes’ travel time between London and Birmingham, and bringing that journey from one hour 21 minutes to 52 minutes.
Critics say that the damage caused by this gargantuan infrastructural project – spanning 140 miles, impacting 6,916 acres of English countryside, and costing upwards of £106bn – will be far too devastating to justify it. According to the Woodland Trust, the project will damage and totally destroy up to 108 irreplaceable ancient woods across the country (a figure HS2 Ltd dispute).
But it’s not just the Woodland Trust and other conservationist organisations who are up in arms. Protestors (under the name HS2 Rebellion) have set up protest camps all along the route of HS2. One camp of shelters, bivouacs and treehouses sprouted over winter outside Euston station in London. It was dismantled and its inhabitants evicted on 30th January.
That, at least, was how the story appeared on the surface.
On 27th January, protestors – who’d been on the site since October 2017 – revealed that they’d dug a 100-feet long network of tunnels in order to delay their removal and further impede the project, with nine of them disappearing down and settling in for a long stay. And they’d done this in secret, under the noses of a motley crew of coppers, bailiffs, guards and hard-hatted boot-boys with “Protestor Removal Technician” on the back of their jackets.
Starting on 30th January, those technicians began trying to dig out the protestors, some of whom are locked into contraptions within the shafts. They’re using shovels, power tools and buckets, and are dealing with freezing, muddy, flooded tunnels, earth sodden by rain and snow, the constant possibility of collapse, and protestors, such as Dan Hooper, or Swampy as he is better known, who won’t give in – no matter how uncomfortable and dangerous their situation.
Hello Dan! Why are you all hanging out in tunnels outside of Euston station?
It’s the most effective way of doing things, and you get a big amount of publicity from tunnelling. We saw it in the ’90s when we stopped the road-building program. The longest tunnel eviction so far was six weeks and you can imagine the effect and cost of that. I and lots of other people believe that that is why the road-building program stopped in the ’90s. Obviously, that has all started again now, as well as this totally un-environmental train line [HS2], so we’ve got to fight back! This is a good, non-violent, massively effective way of doing that.
Won’t these evictions cost taxpayers money?
They do, but so does HS2, which is a huge waste of taxpayers’ money. Imagine £230 billion [unverified] going into the NHS at the moment – we would have enough wards for Covid and we could get loads of vaccines out there. It’s just a huge waste of money and an absolute vanity project. It’ll put 11 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere just from the building of this project. The HS2 line is going to use as much energy as two-thirds of the existing rail network in this country [unverified]. It’s just not green.
For those that might not know, what is the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill that’s waiting for its day in parliament, why is it important, and what does it have to do with your HS2 protest?
It’s a science-led bill. It’s a lot more stringent than the Paris Agreement, and it has to happen. The Paris Agreement is based on a 2°C rise in temperature globally [even though] the actual predicted temperature is 4°C. It’s very needed. It’s so difficult to get governments to sign up to these things, let alone do it. It would also make environmentally damaging projects like HS2 illegal, which will be a really good thing. It has to happen otherwise…
…otherwise, we’re buggered, aren’t we? It’s survival of most of the life on the planet. The worry is that it won’t get a second hearing, because they’ve stopped second hearings because of Covid. Caroline Lucas and a few others are pushing for it still. We’ll wait to see what happens on that one.
How many people are in the tunnels with you?
There are seven people down here now.
What’s happening with the bailiffs above you?
We have to have a guard near where they’re working. They’re currently working on the tunnel opposite us. It’s a 24-hour working team, which they didn’t use to do in the ’90s. The ground is so unstable, I think they’re struggling with it. We’re not that far off the water table either, so they’re struggling with the water just as much as we are.
Is there any kind of communication between you and them?
Yeah, it wasn’t great to begin with, but now we have to communicate. They’ve given us lighting because they decided it would be a safety issue for us to be here without lighting. But they won’t give us water at the moment.
I heard you were staying at another HS2 protest camp outside of London. How did you end up in the tunnels in London?
My kid Rory said he really wanted to do it and obviously I don’t take much persuading! [laughs] I spoke to my partner and she was okay with it. We’ve got such a great team down here, an amazing dream-team of tunnel-builders.
What do you do all day?
We’ve got to have somebody on guard duty and they’re usually on media duty as well, so they’re usually at the door. You have to keep an eye on things down here – there are bits where soil is coming in from the side and you’ve got to panel it and make it safe. Water comes up, wet bedding happens, there’s all that sort of thing to do. But sometimes just lounging around having fun, you know? [laughs] We’ve been in here two weeks today, so we’re having a party!
Wait… a party?
Well, we’ve got some nice juices and olives. [laughs]
Yeah, we’ve got music. Or we might just hang out in a big cuddle because it’s a bit tight down here! There are all these really narrow passages and you have to crawl over each other to get to the chambers and everything. It’s madness really!
Are you cold?
I can’t say too much about where we’re sleeping but it’s not so cold down there. It depends on who’s in there. It is a bit cold from the entrance, but then it is vital for air. Yesterday it was cold and there was rising water…
…hello? I can’t hear you…
Jak? Can you hear me? I think there is only just a bit of signal where I am but I don’t want to poke my head out too much because the bailiffs will grab me!
Of course. So, how long will your rations last?
Oooh, I couldn’t say too much because the bailiffs will hear.
But have you plenty of food down there?
Yeah, I think we could probably do six weeks, I would’ve thought.
Do you ever get panicky or claustrophobic?
Erm, no, I don’t. If you did, then you wouldn’t do it. None of us do. We just get used to it and it’s just funny sometimes, crawling over each other, trying to squeeze into places. It can be stressful at times but usually, we just laugh about it, you know? Make jokes about it. You have to try and be a bit organised, but it’s very hard down here with stuff. If you put something on a different shelf you might not find it for a while.
How’s Rory doing?
He’s loving it, yeah. He’s sleeping a lot, as teenage boys would, so it’s kind of ideal in a way. [laughs] He’s helping with the work and getting on with people. Two of the other people are quite young as well, so they get on really well.
Do you feel optimistic about this action?
Yeah, I do. I think this is a step in the direction of winning again. It needed to happen. I can imagine HS2 Limited aren’t very happy at the moment. I’ve found that when one tunnel happens other tunnels follow.
Well, there is that one in Highbury Corner.
Yes, I know! That’s really funny, isn’t it? They’ll have to get the rival eviction team in for that because this team is busy. There is usually only one tunnel team. They must’ve got there and thought: “Oh my God…” And it’s a council eviction as well. How will the council be able to afford that? I think they’ll have to back down… I don’t know.
Have you got what you need in case of an emergency?
Yeah, of course. First aid kits and stuff. The bailiffs got us breathing apparatus. We are pretty sorted and if there was a collapse we’ve got the air pipe at the end. I don’t think there will be – I’m confident. We are always checking the walls every day, to see how stable it is while we’re here. We have had to do some work on it while we’re here.
Can there be any kind of compromise reached between you and HS2 Ltd?
Oh yeah, they can stop HS2, definitely.
Is that the only option?
Yeah, that would be a really good compromise. We would definitely come out if they stop HS2! It’s absolutely ridiculous, it’s the biggest deforestation since the First World War. It’s massive, it’s so much land. If they stop that, we’ll come out. Oh, also maybe if the pubs open I’ll come out!