Cock o’ the North

Malcolm is profoundly suspicious of any politician sharing Grandes Projets with us. Boris Island is a prime example of the species: fortunately that one will go back into its box after the May election. Another is HS2: £32,700,000,000 of hard cash in the “official” government estimate, but £62,700,000,000 looked at another way.

Which is why:

Going through some old stuff, Malcolm came up with a cheaper, more realistic alternative — one that, moreover, needs upgrading rather than carving through suburbia and the Chilterns from scratch (see top of this post — though that map is less than honest).

As far back as 1979 British Rail (remember them?) was proposing to electrify the route to Sheffield: this, in Network Rail parlance, is now “Route 19”, which neatly defines its level of priority in the scheme of things. What has happened is:

  • The Thameslink stretch from Moorgate to Bedford, largely a commuter route, got wired for power.
  • When the HSTs (good old mid-1970s diesel engineering) became available, the signalling around Leicester had to be brought into the later twentieth century.
  • Finally, a bit of piecemeal upgrading happened between Derby and Sheffield, to allow the Virgin Trains Cross Country service to become a whit more credible.

And that’s it, to date.

The Airedale Line

Southerners fail to recognise the significance of rail transport north of Watford Gap. Outside of the London termini, Leeds — seventeen platforms and nearly 40 million users a year — is the third busiest station in Britain (only Birmingham New Street and Glasgow Central being more used).

North of Leeds, the stretch to Skipton is now “the Airedale Line”, nicely electrified and again mainly a commuter route.

Through the Borders

The really “interesting” bit (see top), 73 miles of the Settle-Carlisle line, is merely part of “Route 23”, the omnibus package of rural lines in Lancashire and Cumbria.

Meanwhile, the magnificent Waverley Line from Carlisle to Edinburgh is still there, and ready to be fully reinstated. The Scottish Parliament (bless!) has divvied up £115 million (i.e. four-tenths of one percent of the London largesse promised for HS2) to reopen the stretch from Galashiels to Edinburgh and the East Coast Main Line.

Admittedly, the Waverley Line was tough going for steam locomotives, made worse by deploying unsuitable engines and by changing locos between LMS and LNER at Carlisle. Electrification and a bit of track straightening, all achieved for a fraction of the HS2 cost, solve all these issues, create a third route from London to the North, remove some, if not much of the through traffic from the overused West Coast Line, and access directly the Midlands and Yorkshire cities that are currently “off the map”.

In passing, this exposes another fallacy of HS2: the “promise” of a fast link to Leeds and the North, sometime in the second third of this century. The East Coast Main Line, largely on the flat, and straight, is always going to be the expressway to York and Edinburgh. Else, for much of its length, it has little strategic function.

Two remaining mysteries

The first is why HS2 needs the taking-out of much more of Somers Town:

The first section of the £33bn project’s route from London to Birmingham will demolish much of an estate housing many hundreds of people near Euston station.

While much protest has focused on the scheme’s effect on the Chilterns in marginal Tory-held constituencies, more than two-thirds of the 323 homes earmarked for demolition along the entire route are within the first half-mile in central London, mostly social housing on the Regent’s Park estate. Camden council believes a further 264 homes near the proposed line are at risk.

The redevelopment and expansion of Euston will affect businesses in adjoining streets.

Euston and St Pancras were busy termini back in the days of steam. The number of train movements has not greatly increased, if at all, since those days. What has changed is the number of passengers on each individual train, and — but naturally — the retail operations which benefit thereby.

The new St Pancras is, indeed a fine achievement. What we got (for going on £6 billion) were four platforms for the Midland Main Line (a fair hike in the direction of Kentish Town), six for the pampered two million users of Eurostar, three for the mulcted express commuters on HS1 to Ashford, Kent, and two down below for the plebs on Thameslink. Plus a whole plantation of shopping opportunities, not excluding a vitally-essential champagne bar.

The second is why developing the old Midland Railway service to the North is still an idea whose time is not yet come. This could be achieved for a fraction of the cost and the time-span of HS2, is well within the straitened means of GB Inc., and could even be sold as part of Dave Cameron’s current soft-soaping of the Scots.
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1 Comment

Filed under BBC, Boris Johnson, Britain, David Cameron, economy, Elections, Guardian, History, London, politics, railways, Scotland, Tories., Yorkshire

One response to “Cock o’ the North

  1. Doubting Thomas

    I have to express a mild (I hope) note of dissent to your posting. Part of the rationale behind HS2 is the lack of capacity in the railway from London to Brimingham and the North West for both freight and passengers. The cost of extra lines would be close to that of building a new railway without taking into account the massive disruption to traffic that would be necessary. Much as the old Midland line to Scotland needs electrification it does not actually solve the lack of capacity out of Euston. On the east coast side the bottle neck between Welwyn and Stevenage reduces the ability to increase the number of trains to the north east but again it does not help with the west coast line to Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester.

    Doubtless the cost estimates are shaky but what I find more disappointing is the dilatory way in which the government is approaching investment in the railways.

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