Rail 784: The modern railway should not be destroying its heritage

At the National Rail Awards, Nigel Harris, my esteemed editor, made great play of the history of the railways, referring to both the Stockton & Darlington Railway, and the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, the two seminal railways. I have always stressed the importance of the latter over the Stockton & Darlington, which in my view was merely a more sophisticated version of the waggonways which had existed since the 17th century even though it did have some locomotive traction. The Liverpool & Manchester, on the other hand was a fully fledged modern railway, twin tracked, entirely loco hauled, which carried both passengers and freight and, crucially, linked two very important towns (they were not cities yet).

I was glad, therefore, that Nigel did a a series of pieces to camera from the site of the first station, which is now incorporated into the Manchester Museum of Science & Industry (quick declaration of interest – I am on the advisory board of its sister body, the National Railway Museum). Nigel emphasised the key role that the railway played in British history. Therefore, it is all the more shocking that Network Rail is about to demolish or alter many of the structures that make up this historic site in order to construct the Ordsall Curve. According to English Heritage, which has maintained its opposition to the plans, 13 historic structures will be affected by the work. Network Rail accept that there would be damage to these structures, but argues that the importance of the new connection overrides the impact.

The scheme has been ages in gestation, having first been proposed in the 1970s and announced as an £85m scheme by the Chancellor, George Osborne, in 2011. The Museum objected to the plans but has managed to negotiate an agreement to mitigate some of the worst aspects and has accepted compensation of £3m because the line, used for steam trains and special events,  which connects the historic station to the rail network will be severed leaving the museum with just a 100m stretch of track. However, English Heritage is still objecting and work is now being held up by a legal challenge from the former president of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Mark Whitby who remarkably is funding the action himself. He has managed to obtain a judicial review of the planning process because he argued that the original inspector’s report did not properly take into account possible alternatives. The case is due to be heard in the week after this issue goes to press.

As a result, he has infuriated Network Rail, who will not discuss the case claiming it is sub judice, and the local council whose leader Sir Richard Leese who has complained that Whitby is singlehandedly ‘holding up a very important development for Greater Manchester. No one disputes that the Ordsall Curve will be an enormous benefit to rail passengers in the North, as it allows a connection between Piccadilly and Victoria stations., reducing journey times between Manchester and Leeds and leading to a vast increase in capacity – although there have been arguments that it will not deliver as many improvements which Network Rail claim unless other local bottlenecks are sorted.

However Whitby has made a detailed alternative proposal which he claims would not necessarily be more expensive, though it does involve a longer section of new track. English Heritage remains an implacable opponent, too, and its former chairman, Sir Neil Cossons, one of the country’s foremost experts on industrial heritage told The Observer: ‘In Network Rail you’ve got a major engineering enterprise, a multi-billion pound national organisation with no board-level expertise in design and heritage’. He could, too, by the way, have pointed to other gaps in the board of Network Rail, most notably lack of railway experience.

The judicial review will determine whether Network Rail has acted reasonably. Most such actions lose but perhaps even if Network Rail wins, it might reconsider. British Rail was often rightly criticised for disregarding its heritage and failing to consider its role in preserving it. So before confirming the decision and going ahead with the work, here’s a recommendation. Every Network Rail director and senior manager should get hold of Simon Bradley’s remarkable new book, The Railways, Network, Nation and People which is the best book on the railways which I have read in a long time. It covers every aspect of what the railways meant for those who travelled on them. It sets out, in great detail, precisely what early rail travel was like, both its positives and negatives, and shows how they embedded themselves in virtually everyone’s lives.

The Liverpool & Manchester Railway was the start of this process and therefore its heritage is worthy of preserving. Of course, it is likely that Network Rail will argue that it is under obligation to produce the cheapest scheme and it may well be that alternatives are more expensive, even though Mr Whitby denies this. I am not one to suggest that every brick put down by our Victorian forebears has to be left intact. I have never been a fan of restoring the Euston Arch, which was a banal Victorian folly, a few Doric columns in the wrong place. There is always a balance to be struck as not everything that is old is necessary worthwhile but in this case the structures concerned may well earn a Unesco World Heritage Site award. Therefore before taking this irreversible step, Mark Carne, the boss of Network Rail, should set out precise reasons why there is no alternative and confirm that every other avenue has been fully explored.


St Pancras in need of change

My mention of the failings of St Pancras in Rail 780 has touched a nerve and even made it to the Londoners’ Diary in the Evening Standard. There is no doubt that a major rethink will be necessary when Eurostar services are increased and the new Siemens trains, which accommodate up to 900 passengers, come into service. I don’t see how without some redesign, and a speeding up of the process to access the trains, the station can cope.

The downstairs lounge where people wait to get on the trains is usually pretty full and if there is any delay soon becomes unbearable. Since the trains are turned around pretty slowly – as I mentioned I often have meetings at the Benugo café upstairs and see how much slack there is in the schedule – there is no reason why people could be allowed on to the trains sooner which would relieve some of the pressure – or the ridiculous 30 minute check in rule could be relaxed.

However, there are three areas of vastly wasted space which must be brought into use. First, the front of the station has a vast ramp and was once a vehicular access, but is now completely unused, which is a ridiculous waste. The reason is that people are not allowed out at the platform level, but are force to go a tortuous way to a side exit in the main walkway through a deserted customs area which is the second space that needs to be brought into use. The third (see endless Rail columns on my website about this) is the vast area, the size of half a football pitch, beyond the buffer stops which has been unaccountably fenced off by the security glass.

There is, too, a fourth potential source of space. The cafes are indeed very useful and full, but does St Pancras really need a shoe shop next to the taxi rank or an Oliver Bonas – there are countless other shops that are ‘retail opportunities’ but which clog up the station and could be used as waiting areas in emergencies.

The station just about copes at the moment when there are no mishaps or major delays. Once something goes wrong, ,however, chaos reigns and people waiting for Eurostar trains have nowhere to go. So as well as getting more people to use the upstairs (and the ridiculous ‘longest champagne bar in Europe’ always seems to me as very underused’), as I mentioned in my previous rant about this, the very purpose of St Pancras as a station – yes, a station – needs to be emphasised. Let’s hope that HS1 which operates the station realises that the loss of revenue is a small price to pay for running an effective station. And that it does not start charging for the toilets as in neighbouring King’s Cross.

Scroll to Top