Trains have for a long time been constant if unheralded presence in our culture. The development of the steam engine was a key point in the industrial revolution which transformed society. Passenger trains opened the world up for travel to ordinary people in a way that must have been previously unimaginable, not to mention how the goods transported by rail have changed our everyday lives.
It makes sense then that railways have for a long time been potent symbols for storytellers of all kinds. Endless books, movies and songs refer to trains somehow. They often depict loved ones leaving or returning, and can be powerful emotional images for that reason. They can be used to depict hopes for spiritual or social liberation (eg. This Train is Bound For Glory or People Get Ready There’s a Train A’coming in African-American culture). For Johnny Cash in Folsom Prison Blues the train is the symbol of freedom lost. They can symbolise the journey through life, or be the setting for tales of adventure and crime. Trains can also represent some of the most horrific events of our times, when the images become Jews being loaded into carriages and taken to Nazi gas chambers. Whole subcultures have developed around railways, from hobos hopping freight to trainspotters waiting on platforms.
Even in Australia, which has a less rail-dependent economy than Europe or the US, trains are still there in our national legends – Ned Kelly trying to ambush a trainload of cops, or Afghans with camels lugging railway sleepers through the desert to build “The Ghan”. Some of the most iconic landscape paintings in Australian art depict the railway, like Arthur Streeton’s Fire’s On and Redfern Station.
The rise of car and aeroplane travel has made the railway less of a potent symbol. These days trains are less likely to be linked with adventure than they are boredom and feeling stuck – peak hour carriages full of bored and tired commuters, platforms lined with people glued to their phone screens wishing they were somewhere else.
But some people are out there still trying to use the train as a symbol of the things that matter most. In 2009, a group of environmentalist Sydney folkies called The Lurkers wrote a song called Who’s Got A Padlock and Chain? (“we’re locking on tight to that coal train tonight”) after being part of a protest at Climate Camp in Helensburgh just south of Sydney.
The song might not be the most accurate depiction of “locking on” (which is very rarely actually done with a padlock and chain), but it has become a standard in the repertoire of Australian protest singers and blockade camp singalongs. And as fossil fuels drive us closer and closer to predicted extreme climate change; with coal exports one of Australia’s major contributions; the act of blocking freight trains loaded with coal has become an increasingly common form of environmental protest action.
These kinds of protests have taken place all over the country – at the world’s biggest coal port in Newcastle; at Willow Creek in western NSW where coal from the controversial Maules Creek coal mine is shipped; and especially in recent years in Queensland. A number of times trains have been halted on their way to the Port of Brisbane. They have been stopped west of Toowoomba near the Acland mine which is being expanded despite a ruling against it in the Land and Environment Court. And now quite a few times in central Queensland near Abbot Point, where the proposed Adani mine, which has become the main battleground of climate change politics, would be shipping out its coal.
As well as happening at different places, these protests have taken different forms. The mass walk-on like that climate camp at Wollongong has been used several times. Also people have climbed up into treesits attached to the rail line, or suspended themselves in tripods. Some have locked themselves to barrels full of concrete laid across the train line or the train itself. Some have just climbed on top of a carriage and refused to come down.
All of these people were arrested and charged for their actions. All of them, even if temporarily, have stopped coal from being transported and exported. But this kind of protest “direct action” is always partly about symbolism. Like those storytellers of old using the symbol of the rail to say something about life. And this story is a bit like the old cinema trope of a runaway train with a damsel in distress tied to the tracks. And ordinary people, seeing the danger, are trying to avert a catastrophe.
The runaway train is a good metaphor for climate change. For one, climate change is predicted to have an actual momentum of its own – once human-caused emissions have raised global temperatures enough to melt arctic icecaps, the emission of methane stored in the permafrost will set off its own chain of climate change. Other natural systems the planet has for balancing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere will shut off once disrupted, which will further exacerbate the process.
But also, the runaway train symbolises the crazed logic that is knowingly and willingly destroying the planet we all rely on for survival. Looked at objectively, our continuing increased carbon emissions makes absolutely no sense. Even business-wise – that coal has been there for millions of years. If there is going to be a continuing demand for coal, for things like coking steel, there is no reason it has to all be dug up and sold now.
Except it makes perfect sense in the logic of profit; where making as much money as fast as possible is the only law. Our society’s complete subservience to this ideology is demonstrated in our continuing use of fossil fuels and actual resistance to alternatives that are more environmentally sustainable.
This logic is the real runaway train activists are standing in front of when they symbolically halt those rolling tonnes of steel and coal. And the actions stopping those trains are trying to point to a different story – one where ordinary people don’t feel powerless in the face of the huge and relentless profit machine.
In the last few months there has been a real clampdown on climate activists stopping coal trains. There have been some big fines handed down,and hefty restitution orders claimed against activists by police for the cost to business of the actions. And there is currently a civil lawsuit being taken out by freight rail company Aurizon against the organisation Frontline Action on Coal and five people who on separate occasions stopped trains.
It hasn’t stopped people taking these kinds of actions. But it has meant those who do are facing pretty serious consequences. 21 year old Freya Nolin was fined $10,000 for stopping trains at Abbot Point. Restitution claims vary wildly, but have at times amounted to more than half a million dollars. Aurizon’s lawsuit is claiming a total of $750,000 (presumably plus costs) – $75,000 per activist.
There are some issues that should be raised about these figures – particularly the restitution numbers. For one, they are hard to take seriously when they vary so wildly. As an example, take the cases of two different actions which recently blocked access to the Port Of Brisbane. In November, Sadie Jones stopped trains for nine hours near the Port of Brisbane having a tea party on top of a train. The figure then was $25,000. Last month Jaxom Kerlin halted trains for 14 hours at the same spot and the cost quoted was $1.4 million.
But also, actions of this kind have never traditionally been ordered to pay restitution, which kinda makes sense – after all, those in question haven’t actually damaged or taken any property, which would be the usual reason courts would impose restitution orders. All they’ve done is delay its transportation for a while – it will presumably still be sold for roughly as much money as it would have otherwise. It does seem that it is police pursuing companies for these costs to pin them on as part of sentencing, and the fluctuating figures would indicate that possibly the companies don’t really have a very good idea of what the costs are.
It also goes against the traditional legal approach to dealing with acts of civil disobedience – a principle summarised by British judge Lord Hoffman who said “Civil disobedience on conscientious grounds has a long and honourable history in this country… But there are conventions which are generally accepted by the law-breakers on one side and the law-enforcers on the other. The protesters behave with a sense of proportion and do not cause excessive damage or inconvenience. And they vouch the sincerity of their beliefs by accepting the penalties imposed by the law. The police and prosecutors, on the other hand, behave with restraint and the magistrates impose sentences which take the conscientious motives of the protesters into account.”
The lawsuit meanwhile is part of a tradition of using civil courts to stop protest action. Famous examples include the McLibel case in London and the Gunns 20 in Tasmania, both of which famously backfired on the companies in question. Aurizon’s use of this tactic doesn’t seem very honourable in that the young idealists (four of them in their early 20’s) who they are suing clearly do not have the $75,000 being sought from them each (Aurizon’s profits last year before tax were $941 million); and also obviously did not take the actions out of malicious intent to the company. Some of the information Aurizon has circulated about the lawsuit is simply a lie, for instance claiming activists jump on moving trains.
The young people who have done them at risk of arrest, fines and worse should be recognised as artists and moral philosophers, which is what they are – trying to frame questions about the ethics of climate change in a creative way and pose them to the public.
And controversial as these actions may be, statistics would suggest they do actually speak for the majority of Australians in doing what they do, with several recent polls finding a majority of respondents critical about Adani and in favour of urgent climate action.
But in reality these five people are being hounded and demonised by the corporate media (“Hit them in the hippie pocket” read one headline), and have been all but abandoned by the big environmental organisations who are scared by government threats to charities out of supporting anybody doing civil disobedience. These groups talk about resistance, but they haven’t been very keen to support those who actually stand in front of the coal industry and are now facing pretty steep consequences.
With civil and criminal court cases coming up, these folks who have stopped trains to point out the future of us all is tied down on those tracks deserve our support. Financial support if needed, moral support by sharing the stories of their resistance and by showing up to court, and companionship on those tracks to turn the symbol of ordinary people stopping the runaway train of climate change into a reality.