Rail 839: Sense of injustice in the North

Trouble is brewing in the provinces. The sense of anger about the imbalance between spending on railway investment in London and the South East compared with that in the regions is palpable. Moreover, in the unstable atmosphere of politics at the moment, nothing can be taken for granted and changes may well be afoot.

The sense of resentment was well expressed in the Commons on November 6 by the new MP for Kingston upon Hull North, Diana Johnson, who was well armed with figures which, despite being familiar, are worth repeating since they are so shocking. She told Parliament: ‘The gap in transport investment between the north and the capital is stark and widening. Nowhere is this divide more apparent than in Yorkshire and the Humber. We are to get just £190 a head in future transport investment over the next few years, the lowest of any UK region. London will get £1,943 a head—10 times as much’. She welcomed the fact that Transport for the North was to receive £60m to develop plans for the region but then pointed out that Transport for London routinely spends that amount annually on advertising.

There is, of course, something of a counter argument. London and the South East have lots of rail lines and they are very heavily used. They are the key transport infrastructure without which the region’s economy would founder. That is true enough but in a way it is an admission of the way that the regions are losing out. There are so many poor connections between relatively close towns that would benefit whole regions and, in the absence of any strategic overview of the railways, there is no systematic way of addressing these.

I was struck by this while at the recent Railfuture conference in Leicester, which was addressed by the mayor and former Labour MP, Peter Soulsby. He is, I realised, a real rail enthusiast who is deeply frustrated by the failure of successive governments to address regional rail issues. The issue causing most anger is, of course, the abandonment, for the time being, of plans to electrify the Midlands Main Line but leaving little scandal aside since I want to focus on inter-regional transport, the other ridiculous situation is that there is no direct train service between Leicester and Coventry, two major cities a mere 30 miles apart, linked by an overcrowded motorway.

Currently the fastest train journey between the two is around 70 minutes with a change at Nuneaton or Birmingham New Street (the latter involves a rail journey that covers twice the mileage between the two than road transport!). Midlands Connect, the conglomeration of local authorities and national government that is pressing for better transport connections in the region, has assessed the various options required to provide a direct service. Ideally, this would require a diveunder or flyover at Nuneaton to reduce conflict with the West Coast Main Line but this is recognised as expensive as it was estimated at £40m a decade ago, and therefore cheaper options with fewer services are being considered.

There are numerous other connections that could do with making or improving in the region. I noted a few issues ago (Rail 823) how crammed the train between Derby and Stoke was because it was a one carriage service every hour. Peter Soulsby was asked about the Northampton to Leicester service, which also requires a change, and takes at least 70 minutes for a 40 mile journey, though he accepted this was less of a priority than Coventry – Leicester. There was, too, a presentation about proposals for the National Forest Line to link Coalville and other parts of North East Leicestershire with Leicester or possibly even Birmingham. And a group of rail supporters have created a well-researched business case for connecting the East Midlands with Manchester by reopening the Peak Main Line to give a far more direct route between what the authors call ‘two Powerhouses’.

I have argued previously that HS3 should involve creating a ‘Network SouthEast for the North’, a system of fast, electric and frequent services between all the cities of the north.  The Midlands could do well with similar thinking.

One problem of all such schemes involving investment on the network is that they have to go through the terrible GRIP (Governance for Railway Investment Projects) process about which I have often written before. Several speakers at the Railfuture conference mentioned, too, how every scheme has to be ‘modelled’ with predictions of how many passengers will use the improved service. Yet, these models often turn out to be wrong, either too optimistic or, as in the case of the Borders Railway, far too pessimistic. It is an inexact science, but an expensive one, and that cost is a deterrent to the pursuit of schemes that might have a huge local impact. Even those schemes which merely involve more frequent service, there has to be a ‘business case’ and money has to be found as invariably they tend to be loss making – at least in monetary terms.

The problem with this modelling is that it is quantitative rather than qualitative. Huge amounts of energy and consultants’ time is spent to try to come up with a single figure to justify or reject a scheme. Yet, instinctively it is obvious that linking up regional towns with efficient railway services would be of enormous benefit to them. The precise amounts are mere fiction, numbers conjured up by overpriced consultants working to ridiculous briefs. Their time would be much better spent visiting successful regional lines, such as the Avocet line out of Exeter, a lucky survivor of Beeching which, thanks to an active community group and support from FirstGroup, the franchisee, flourishes to the great benefit of the local economy

This is where the lack of a strategic body with oversight of the rail network is so apparent. Such a body, given freedom from government, would be able to negotiate with local stakeholders and bring forward schemes quickly without going through the ridiculous hurdles within the existing structure. It would be, unlikely Network Rail, proactive and innovative, a can-do organisation rather than a ‘sorry guv’ one.

All these schemes, of course, pale into insignificance against the megaproject in our midst, HS2. One of the refrains of several speakers at the Railfuture conference was how they saw HS2 as either damaging or, at best, an irrelevance. They were sceptical, as I have been, of the gains from the proposed station at Toton, between Nottingham and Derby and were concerned that, if built, it would make some journeys longer by removing trains off the Midland Main Line. The regions want local and regional rail investment, at levels which, if not on a par with London and the South East, are at least in the same ball park. The clamour for this is growing and politicians will find themselves under great pressure to respond positively.



The hype over hyperloop


In one respect I am at one with the supporters of HS2: I agree with their dismissal of claims, supported by Richard Branson, that a hyperloop, originally developed by Elon Musk, the boss of Tesla and proponent of creating a Martian settlement, might be the answer to our intercity transport problems.

The idea made headlines earlier this month with the prospect of a 700 mph system linking London and Scotland. However, even though several countries are apparently considering this technology and have signed deals for research and development, little of the concept seems to hold water. Travelling at 700 mph in a very confined space in a small capsule that necessarily has to be light does not seem like an attractive prospect compared with well-tried technologies such as railways and aircraft. The safety issues seem to me insuperable. In any case, the 700 mph concept seems to have been discarded in favour of a 300 mph model which is not that significantly faster than HS2 and a damned sight less pleasant.

Musk had originally wanted to put his tubes above ground but is now suggesting they should be underground, possibly because his scientists realised that the expansion of the tubes exposed to the hot sun in California, where he first proposed a line should be built, would cause major problems.

I am fast turning into a bit of an old curmudgeon on supposed transport technology breakthroughs as I have just finished a short book on why driverless cars will never happen – or at least will not take over the world in the way that their supporters are suggesting. Watch out for ‘Driverless Cars: on the road to nowhere’ in January. My scepticism is based on being familiar with many inventions of the past which have not seen the light of day, or have only been developed in a limited or niche way, because of the inherent problems and the fact that they represent a radically different technological path to the one that has been the subject of massive investment: Maglev, monorail, airships, flying boats, hovercraft, personalised jet packs, Sinclair C5 etc. I’m sure readers can have fun suggesting a few more.

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