The politics of speed

stop hs2 large

By Philippe Blanchard

The territory of the University of Warwick should be split in a few years by the HS2, a High speed train that will join London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. Political, economic and media elites at national level widely support the project. “The new railway will be an engine for economic growth. HS2 will generate jobs and help rebalance the economy between north and south”. An analogous quasi-consensus enabled the French TGV to join Lyon, Marseille, Nantes and Strasbourg to Paris since the 1980s. Similarly, the main oppositions to high speed in France came from future neighbours of the new rail track, afraid of losing their view and quietness. This is what the central platform of opponents, supported by the Labor Party, translated into the formula: “No business case, No environmental case, No money to pay for it”. Opponents make themselves more relevant and acceptable by reframing local fears into national arguments, in direct contradiction to the proponents’ slogans.

So, apparently, this is business as usual. Money against environment, progress against preservation, growth as a priority against a compromise between growth and other aspects of well-being. The same confrontation has been running on many issues since the emergence of political ecology in the 1950s-1960s. In a few famous cases, environment did win the confrontation. But most of the times, in the vast majority of local procedures or consultations, business interests get the best. This is how our societies have become “industrialised” over the last two centuries, after all.

Now, is there not something specific this time? Some may conceive of the HS2 as a political equivalent to a nuclear power plant, a commercial centre or a waste incineration plant. Each time big private and/or public organisations present a large project supposed to lead to an economic step change, more business, more employment and more development. Opponents come out, denying the validity of the outcomes, or its value, in the name of well-being, environment or alternative businesses.

What is a high speed train? A bet that shipping humans quicker between cities will facilitate exchanges. It avoids taking a shuttle to the airport and queuing at security points. Reversely, opponents pretend that the bet might be lost and that the costs of building the train will not benefit so much. But the debate over growth is probably settled. The competition between economic actors is regulated by the capacity to exchange goods, workforce, money and information at the lowest price. As for goods and humans, HS2 will indeed accelerate the economic pace and make long-distance domestic exchanges more intense. It will also release room on secondary tracks for slower, local trade. It will give a competitive advantage to British inter-cities exchanges over slower domestic national spaces, not equipped (yet) with high speed. And, as certainly, HS2 will cut into the most cherished and fertile countryside land, split ecosystems, disrupt the landscape, generate noise and lengthen some local journeys. The deal is then: more efficiency and comfort on one side for inter-cities exchanges, against less for local people.

Now, one may ask: what is this speed we run after? Why be quick? I am in A, I head to B. Why reach it in a short time rather than in a longer time? In the first place, what is too slow and what is quick enough? For sure, one thing we know is the economic value of speed: proposing a product before your competitor increases your chance of selling it, at the same price, or even higher. The history of capitalism is marked by crucial accelerations: the first use of the telegraph to pass trade orders in the 1790s, of steam trains to spread industrial goods over Europe by mid-19th century, of heroic transatlantic postal flights in the 1910s, of supersonic Concorde in the 1960s… Each time a race was won by one or a few and lost by many.<

Capitalism is a race. HS2 is a figure of it. Races never end. Each economic cycle needs its race to keep the machine running. Even after reaching the limits of near-light speed with fibre optic, international finance is still playing the race by nanoseconds (billionth seconds) with high-frequency trading. As for material exchanges, there is room for progress too: vacuum tube trains could multiply high speed by three to twenty times, provided that enough is invested in the tubes.

HS2 bears no meaning of progress or prosperity for neighbours to the tracks. Just a random shock. As for travellers, they skip the territory and forget about the trip’s duration. They do not get the existential experience of the departure, the journey and the arrival anymore. They give up the hard feeling of moving their body, feeding their eyes and making their thoughts progress along the way. This is what French philosopher Paul Virilio (Speed and Politics, 1986 [1977]) called losing Time.

Instead of earning us time, HS2 might be stealing it from us.

philippe blanchard

Philippe Blanchard researches ecology and green politics. He has studied the nuclear energy controversy in France from 1970 to 2000. He is also interested in the role of time in politics, at the junction of marxist and idealist views.


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