Coach and Horses

“L’pool Sth P’way (ALLE) (ALE)” is the first thing I spot. Never one for troubling the Plain English Society, those good burghers of Network Rail have probably outdone even themselves here. The rot set in when printed timetables moved from intuitive layout (running down the way) to cuckoo-bananas (along the way with Scrabble-racks scattered about in ever growing undergrowth of anecdotes and emoji symbols.)

It’s a lazy Sunday as I run my eyes along the timetable. There are more pigeons than passengers. There are more men asking “Wanna help our lads in ‘vganistan madam?” than there are rail staff. There is a page of departures on a screen showing six rail replacement bus services to three trains, and the trains are all stopping short of their usual destinations. Chorley, Wigan NW, Burnely Man. Rd – the abbreviated adjuncts to the railways on this cold, lazy, dull January day.

Accepting that Sunday is the travelling man’s worst nightmare is what British people have done for decades. The attitude is passed down through the genes, like distaste for carrots or women reading the news or that Radio 4 announcer who sounds somewhere between Brian Blessed and Barry White. Sunday’s are Britain’s shut down days, an overhang from the days when the country actually closed up for good, leaving the hungover teenagers from generations past stuck without a SPAR or ASDA to nip to in their best club-smoked Superdrys. Whilst the Church still dictates one or two things around God’s day of rest – how crazy that the Bible was so specific about the total available floor space a shop must cover if it must open before 11am! – the slow erosion of its haughty status as the day of respectful reverence by all the louder, naughtier, busier days has only swept so far up the sands. For so many institutions, including our dear railways, Sunday is the day for respecting the Lord’s mysterious ways, by using his name to question the stoic pertinacity of rail staff who can’t fathom why being stuck on a coach with a luke-warm Upper Crust baguette is such an inconvenience.

Actually, it’s rarely the rail staff who lack total empathy for the weariness of the short distance traveller who wants a railway station to be a railway station, rather than an ad-hoc coach stop. The hi-viz wearing hired-helps armed with clipboards and no information are wound up and let go from about half-ten, when gangs of offcuts from 1960s Butlins promotional videos turn up to be given a 64-seater and rural back roads to negotiate with all the top-to-toe charm of a broken foot. With Sunday still a day of rest for the bus drivers union, this double-pay jaunt down an unknown A-road is more trouble and its worth. “Why,” they seem to ask on behalf of the Network Rail management who put them there, “would anybody need to travel on a Sunday?”

This question was certainly asked in its own little way two weeks ago when Network Rail once again, via those ever helpful souls in the Department for (wrecking) Transport, considered Boxing Day to be a National Day of Mourning.  Reason for the entire rail network to grind to a halt unless you were rich enough to have a flight from Heathrow on the 26th December? Politicians fought through the Christmas TV schedules to apportion blame. “It’s the DfT being stubborn,” tweeted policy wonk RoboSuit #4. “I blame the current Secretary of State” bleeped policy wonk RoboSkirt 5000. “A woman with five boxes and a carry-case wanted to travel from Carlisle to Leeds on Boxing Day. You won’t believe what happened next!” cheered BuzzFeed.

Boxing Day 2013 should, I hope, be the last of its kind. Outside the Heathrow Airport shuttle, not one train ran across the country. Train stations lay in poetic rest, lights twinkling from trees and arcade machines, clocks ticked for no man, pigeons snoozed in lazy repose, UpperCrust staff stayed tucked up in bed, no warmer than any of their products. Cost to the country? Cost to train operating companies for that matter? Nobody knows. Or dares ask. Union bosses must have looked on with barely disguised envy. All we need to do is wait until Boxing Day?!

It is far more important, far more necessary, far more bleedingly obvious, that this country needs to re-examine the impact of Sunday on its transport infrastructure. That the day after Christmas Day is automatically considered fair game for a shut-down lacks any kind of reasoned scrutiny. If Boxing Day falls on a Sunday, does that make the following Monday a further close-down day? Winding down the rail network on Christmas Eve makes sense – but the day after? Who within the confused layers of rail transport in the UK considers it sensible to enforce another day of family time together when so many people [/blokes] just wants to settle back home [/avoid another ‘Then Muslims’ talk with Auntie Jean].

Rather than look at changing the way engineering work, or staff working patterns, work in an age far removed from the decades ago framework on which so much of the railways still run, the industry is focusing on too many unnecessary ‘projects’ for purely self-congratulatory reasons. More trains on a Sunday or HS2? Less disruption due to a lack of available drivers, or more disruption thanks to HS2?

Not content with spending £300m on jollies and japes, the HS2 lobby is set to spend the same again, every six months or so, on propaganda and leaflet dropping. Not one penny on improving travel in rural areas, in remote towns, on Sundays, or on Boxing Day. Not one penny on the infrastructure, only on themselves. It will only get worse as the DfT, its lobbyist chums and obedient lapdogs such as Rail magazine, conspire to shut-out any criticism by nefarious means. When the only funding stream available to the industry is a £30bn London Euston expressway, rather than putting on actual trains to Blackpool on a Sunday morning, then we truly are living in a country with its sensibilities taken for a ride.

Which is more than most passengers could hope so, if they’re thinking of travelling to L’pool Sth P’way or not.

Platform alterations…

I don’t need to tell you that I’m a fan of the railways, having walked an abandoned line from Southport to Preston, and joined blogger Michael Holdsworth on a similar walk into Preston from Grimsargh. That’s just scraping the surface; I grew up fascinated by trains, travelling on them, with them, and with an almost autistic attachment to the stations along each route. No need to wait for a muffled announcement about the train now approaching, as I can rattle off the poetry of station calls on my own; Leyland, Wigan North Western, Bryn, Garswood, St Helens Central…

My love of the railways extends to defending (to a point) the ramshackle approach towards infrastructure and spending in this country. We don’t do it particularly well, and never have. As romantic a view as I’ve always had about them good old days, it doesn’t take long to find contemporary reports from passengers in the 1950s and 1960s that remind us today that British rail has always been crowded, under-funded and bloated with management. The Government department in charge of looking after the whole thing has not been a champion of rail for generations, preferring roads and cars and the motor industry millions that goes with it. Rail has suffered not just because of our love of the car, but because it’s simply far sexier for an MP to sign off another motorway junction than it is a train station.

Which is where we find ourselves with the “HS2” scheme to build a new railway line – “the biggest amount of rail infrastructure spending since the Victorians” – from a new hub outside Heathrow into Birmingham, thence to Manchester in the West and Leeds/Sheffield in the East. A highly controversial and contentious piece of infrastructure spending, and exactly the kind of “pay now, yield the results later” long-term planning for which the DfT has a reputation of shunning in normal circumstances. In its hope to poke economic growth with a stick, the DfT has become the main cheerleader for “HS2” and connected purposes, claiming that the line is vital to bring economic growth to the country, bring northern England new employment opportunities and to free up capacity on the creaking, over-capacity WCML.

And I’m against “HS2”.  Used to be quite neutral, then moved towards being broadly in favour, and now against. Typical LibDem, right?

But the case for “HS2” was always quite flimsy and liquid. I just can’t say that it’s looking particularly strong enough now to justify the strength with which so many fingers are crossed.

One of the best economic cases against “HS2” comes, oddly enough, from tech-site The Register, which blasts the cost-benefit analysis by using its own level headed approach towards the assumption that the commuters of 20-years hence will be the same as those today. The numbers from the Government side don’t add up very well.

The Government assumes that high-speed, long distance travel has to be needed in the 2020s and 2030s because jobs will always be in offices down south, and workers will always be in commuter homes in Solihull and Hazel Grove and Normanton. Link the north with the south, they say, and jobs will be “secured” and growth will be “encouraged”. But what jobs and what growth? There’s always commuters willing to travel, only not from one end of the country to another, and if the percentage of people who require a flight from Manchester to London City Airport is X today, there’s no guarantee that it’ll be “X+” in 2030. As The Register points out, the business traveller who is used to justify the cost is already spending days working from home and hours working en route; what cost analysis exists to prove they’d be happier scrapping all that for a traditional 9-5 in 30 years time?

No such case exists.

A screenplay for “There Will Be Billions” is being drafted. Work at London Euston alone is estimated today to be somewhere around £1.2 billion and will only go higher. The total spend across the network can only be considerably higher than £2 billion. Public expenditure on the project could be in the area of £900 million by the time of the general election, and there’s almost no chance of Parliamentary Scrutiny outside painfully awkward appearances in front of the Public Accounts Committee. The existing proposed route from London into Birmingham and then beyond has already been altered – at cost – due to the “they’ve used a flat map!” approach to deciding on the route. New stations have had to be proposed to placate complaints, much in the same way as unnecessary junctions were added to the M25 to stop people complaining about their back-gardens being ruined in the 1980s.

As you might have heard, the M25 still gets congested quite a lot, despite the amount of extra junctions and numerous extensions.  “HS2” is exactly the same – lots of new stations (slowing down a supposed High Speed line in the process) without improving the existing network.

At the time of writing, the cost/benefit analysis of “HS2” has plummeted to 90p in the pound (source ), and that’s not likely to get any better. Three times as many journeys are into London, not from it, sucking money away from the very outer regions towards the very conurbation Ministers claim needs no further help. Building a new “HS2” station in central Manchester will require existing track to be re-routed, creating a shambles of delay and construction chaos which can only be repeated twenty-fold across every part of its proposed — and as yet unconfirmed — route.

We already have some of the highest fares anywhere in Europe, and those can only grow higher and higher. My love of the railways means there’s only one way to save the network from itself. Scrap “HS2” now to focus on specific regional issues. Force franchise holders to update rolling stock, build new stations, and work on expanding the existing lines such as the WCML. Hard love is admitting that the best way to save the thing you love is not to do the obvious. “HS2” is too obvious, and too clearly flawed. To save the railways, it needs abandoning.