Every so often, an article appears in ‘The Spectator’ where the sole intention is to knock HS2. Don’t be fooled into thinking the ‘speccie’ is somehow a magazine of independent mind. It’s the house journal and propaganda sheet for the far-right of the Tory party. It’s also famous for producing fiction masquerading as fact. It has a long history of getting it wrong on events around HS2. In fact, if you believed everything you ever read in the rag, HS2 should have been stillborn.
The latest mountain of rubbish comes from one Ross Clark, a man who’s clearly a stranger to knowing anything about the subject, or even bothering to do the slightest research on it. He’s come up with this nonsensical piece called “There is a far better option than HS2, and it already exists.
Yes, you’ve guessed it, he’s blathering on about re-opening the Great Central railway! For some reason, the Great Central is one of those totemic issues to people of a certain age, not all of them are railway enthusiasts, although many of them are. It’s symptomatic of England being stuck in the past rather than looking positively to the future, ‘cos for a ‘bright’ future, all we have to do is bring back the past, obviously! You can see this bonkers thinking in the whole Brexit shambles. Anyway, I digress. Let’s have a look at some of Clark’s claims.
I’m struggling to find a single factual statement in this. Where to start? It takes the same route as HS2? No, it doesn’t. The nearest to Birmingham the GC went was Rugby, after which it headed North to go to Leicester, Nottingham and Sheffield. There’s a clue in its name! Its viaducts and bridges are ‘unused’? Well, ignoring the fact many of them have been demolished, that would be news to the good citizens of Nottingham, as much of the city centre formation of the GC has been incorporated into the new tramway, and the site of Nottingham Victoria is now a shopping centre. Here’s an illustration of the scale of changes in Nottingham.
This shot was taken in 2014. It shows the new tram route crossing over the centre of the remaining Nottingham station. It’s built on the course of the Great Central, which crossed the station in exactly the same spot, only that was demolished years ago. This bridge now links the two separate sections of the NET tramway. Remove this and you cut the new tram network in half. Not only that, but the remaining formation of the GC is used by NET in the background. The GC’s ‘almost totally intact’? Pfft!
This website has a great selection of pictures documenting the demolition of the Great Central around Nottingham.
As you can see, the idea that the tracks were ripped up 53 years ago, leaving the formation untouched until the present day is just a load of cobblers, frankly. For example, much of the GC’s route through Leicester was demolished by the beginning of the 1980s whilst the famous bowstring bridge was dismantled in 2009. Here’s a fascinating website that documents the demolition of the Great Central’s infrastructure around Leicester. It blows Clark’s claims out of the water.
At Rugby, the huge ‘birdcage’ bridge that used to carry the GC over the West Coast Main line was demolished in 2006. There’s also a large industrial estate to the north now. It’s the same with the 223m long viaduct at Brackley, which was demolished in 1978. There’s also the small matter that a couple of chunks of the GC around Loughborough are now part of the preserved Great Central railway. They had to reinstate the bridge over the Midland Main Line at great expense and any battle to reclaim the route from them would be rather expensive I imagine! Oh, talking of Blackley, William Barter’s sent me this link, which proves Clark couldn’t even get the bit about reopening the GC not affecting any SSSI’s right. Part of the GC route IS an SSSI!
The GC had ‘the fastest expresses in the country’? That’s a new one I’ve never heard before and I notice he offers no evidence for that claim. The GC had no ‘racing’ stretches like the LNER did on the East Coast main line, or the Great Western had on Brunel’s ‘billiard table’, it just had few stations on the London extension.
Then we get the age-old nonsense that the GC’s London Extension was built to ‘continental loading gauge’. No. It wasn’t. The most common guff you hear is that it was built to ‘Berne gauge’ – only Berne gauge wasn’t established as a standard until a 1912 conference (yes, you’ve guessed it – in Berne!) and wasn’t adopted until 1914, long after the GC London extension was opened. Yes, it does have a slightly more generous loading gauge than many other UK railways built earlier (but only on the London extension), but that’s not equal to any of the standards accepted in Europe and it certainly isn’t the same as the UIC standards trans-European railways like HS1 are built to. It’s also worth noting that many EU railways like Belgium, Germany and the Scandanavian countries use a loading gauge that’s far bigger than Berne.
Another howler is the claim that the GC London extension built as a high speed railway. Firstly, define ‘high-speed’? In the era the GC was built, 75mph was ‘high-speed’, it’s not now. The idea that to can just reinstate a few bridges, relay the track and whizz trains up and down it at 140mph as Clark asserts is just another fantasy. Of course, there’s a subtle irony about these high-speed claims. The London extension was high-speed because it was built as straight as possible through open country and had few intermediate stations so that expresses weren’t slowed down. All these are things opponents of Hs2 object to!
Here’s some more guff from Clark.
Right, we’ve already exposed the “almost totally intact” nonsense, but let’s really put that one to bed. The line remains ‘clear’ at Brackley? I’ve already mentioned the demolished viaduct there, but here’s a screengrab from Google maps showing the town itself. I’ve marked the old GC route in red.
If the line’s ‘clear’ at Brackley, what’s that big industrial estate towards the bottom of the picture then? I could produce map after map showing how little is actually left of the GC route on the ground, rather than in Clark’s imagination. Plus, does Clark seriously think that the residents of the new housing estate would welcome the idea of the place being cut in two by re-opening the GC? Nimbyism would be rife along the route, just as it has been with HS2, where plans to reuse part of the GC formation in Bucks met with opposition from Nimbys!
Now let’s address the ‘question’ of the London end, which Clark poses but glibly ignores answering. Run into Marylebone? You’re having a laugh! Since the 1966 closure of the GC Marylebone’s fortunes have changed completely, once proposed for closure itself its now a very busy station run by Chiltern trains who added two more platforms in 2006 to cope with all the extra trains they run. There’s simply no spare capacity there, nor on the Metropolitan line tracks the route shares with London Underground heading up through Rickmansworth to Amersham. As for running into Paddington. that’s just as laughable, it’s yet another London terminus with no spare capacity. In the 50 years since the GC closed rail services have grown massively, a point totally ignored by Clark. He also mentions Euston but neglects to mention the fact HS2 is having to build a lot of new platforms there to cope. Here you see the beauty of being a writer who’s untroubled by reality, you can airly solve these problem with a few taps on your keyboard. In the real world however…
It’s time that we finally put to bed this fiction that re-opening the Grand Central is either possible, or desireable. We need to stop indulging in these flights of fancy into the past and start dealing with the reality of the future. One last point. The weather. Unless you’ve had your head buried in the sand these past couple of weeks you can’t have failed to notice that the weather is getting more extreme. Our Victorian rail network was built for an age when Climate Change wasn’t even considered. Now we know the truth. HS2 has been designed and will be built to cope with those ‘once in a century’ events that are now happening almost every year. We cannot rely on Victorian infrastructure forever.