Anti-HS2 protesters have sprayed fake blood over the entrance to the Department for Transport and glued themselves to its doors, on the day it was announced that formal construction of the high-speed rail line will begin.
The five activists chanted “HS2 is ecocide” and “HS2 has blood on their hands” as police attempted to remove them.
The stunt was organised by HS2 Rebellion, a campaign group set up to bring together Extinction Rebellion activists and longstanding HS2 campaigners. Addressing the crowd as part of XR’s two-week rebellion, the group’s co-founder Gail Bradbrook said the government should “admit the folly” of the project and invest the money in a green economy and improving current rail and bus services.
“This is an aviation shuttle service between London and Birmingham, favouring rich folks who are based around the capital, and at a time when we need to protect nature, drastically lower carbon emissions and when our pattern of travel in the era of pandemic has changed for good,” she said.
HS2’s proponents hail the line as a means of creating better transport links to the north, as well as shifting freight from roads to rail. Boris Johnson has said previously: “HS2 will fire up economic growth and help to rebalance opportunity across this country for years to come.”
HS2 has argued that getting people out of cars and planes and on to trains will help in the battle against climate change. But critics say its spiralling costs could be better spent elsewhere, and the environmental destruction involved in its creation, along with its overall contribution to carbon emissions, has angered many.
Along with Friday’s day of action, the group have carried out a number of HS2 protests in London this week. A cardboard “Boris the bank engine” worn by a line of protesters marched from Buckingham Palace to parliament on Tuesday, with carriages labelled “Lies” and “Communities destroyed”, and activists have been occupying trees in Parliament Square to protest against the project’s destruction of ancient woodland.
Young people in particular have been on the frontline of the HS2 fight. For many, their experience on the protest camps along the proposed HS2 line – occupying trees and fighting evictions – has been a sharp step change from the marches and speeches of the school climate strikes and XR protests.
“When you’re living on the land that you’re protecting, it’s a whole new level of exhausting and stressful and traumatic, but it’s much more tangible so it’s a lot easier to be motivated by it as well,” said Talia Woodin, 21, from Oxford, who has been living on protection camps for the past three months.
She used to be heavily involved in XR Youth but has stepped back from the group in recent months to focus her energies on HS2. “In XR it’s often quite abstract and you don’t always feel like you’re actually doing anything. Whereas here you’re sitting in a tree and you are physically stopping that tree from being cut down,” she said.
She added that while showing solidarity with crises happening around the world was important, it was easy to become detached from the cause. “[HS2] is happening right in our back gardens; a lot of it is literally happening half an hour from where I grew up,” she said. “It’s our home and if we can’t resist and defend our own home from something like this, then we have no chance of doing it on a greater scale, like when it comes to the Amazon [rainforest] or forest fires.”
Another HS2 protester, a 19-year-old student who asked to remain anonymous, had planned to spend just a week in the protest camps, but is still there three months later. “We’re always talking about mass-scale destruction happening in other countries far away and there’s not much we can do about it except show solidarity. When I found out that it’s actually happening here right under our noses, I thought this is where I need to be,” she said.
“I’ve never experienced this before, having a relationship with a tree,” she laughed. “There was a moment a few weeks ago where this absolutely beautiful tree we were trying to protect was cut down in front of us and a lot of us were crying. I was really, really upset about it because we put so much on the line for this and it’s really heartbreaking. You’re waking up every morning to the sound of woodchippers and chainsaws, and it’s really sad.”
Some of the recent recruits are as young as 16 and their lives have been transformed by the climate crisis movement over the past two years. Their activism against HS2 has been a wake-up call on what it takes to stop environmental destruction from happening.
Woodin said: “There’s so many people that just come along and wave flags and think that they’re doing it, and then when it comes to literally living in the tree that is about to be cut down, they’re nowhere to be found.”