12 May 2019

Coventry Revisted: City of Modernist Culture

I recently heard a performance of Britten’s emotionally shattering War Requiem which was first performed at the consecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1962. Both the Cathedral and the Requiem are hugely significant for the history and psyche of post war Britain and Europe. They are profound reflections on the horrors of war and the destruction of cities, of which Coventry is one of the most infamous examples. But they are also deep symbols of understanding, reconciliation and renewal. It is especially poignant to listen to the War Requiem today when Britain seems to have willfully misread the lessons of the world wars with blustering politicians and pundits routinely expounding ludicrously distorted and jingoistic views of our nation’s past. We are enjoined to celebrate Crecy and the WW1 trenches, re-enact Dunkirk against phantom enemies and to see our future as establishing Empire 2.0. God. Help. Us.

A pilgrimage for planners

That Coventry voted 55% for Leave is maybe not very surprising given the decline of the post-war boom town’s industrial economy over the last 40 years of neo-liberalism. But Coventry is more advantageously placed than many cities and has sought to reinvent its economy, with some evident success. And it is encouraging that the winning bid for City of Culture 2021 includes celebrating Coventry’s cultural diversity.

Evidently not crap – towards Bull Yard

Coventry was one of the earliest jonestheplanner excursions. We were by no means the first to admire the post-war redevelopment of its blitzed city centre, once a source of national pride and a symbol of hope for the future. But in 2011 modernism was largely excoriated and Coventry was generally seen, and saw itself, as a ‘crap town’. Our views were shocking enough to warrant front page coverage in the Evening Telegraph and phone-ins on Radio Coventry. It was evident that many local people did not share our enthusiasm.

Pubic-private partnership 'scribbling on a Mondrian'

The City Council too seemed to have little regard for its modernist heritage, agreeing deeply damaging changes to the Precincts and the execrable Cathedral Lanes development which blocked the iconic axial view between the Precinct and the Cathedral. Worse still was the bizarre redevelopment plan for much of the post war shopping centre designed by Californian ‘visionary architects’ Jerde, the centrepiece of which was to have been an iconic library in the form of an egg. It was the sort of thing that you would find in Astana or Dubai but fortunately was just a fantasy for Coventry.

The value of Modernist architecture, needs a little TLC – Coventry Central Baths

One of the few encouraging things in the last dismal decade has been the growing awareness of the value of modernist architecture. Writers like Owen Hatherley have championed its legacy in Coventry, as has the 20th Century Society. Historic England have now listed many of the key buildings and in 2016 published an invaluable book Coventry – The making of a modern city 1939-73 by Jeremy and Caroline Gould. This book is endorsed by Coventry City Council too, which seems encouraging. And recognition of the importance of Coventry’s architectural and cultural heritage in the winning City of Culture bid represents an important change of outlook. However on revisiting the city this spring it appears that not much has yet really changed in Coventry’s relationship with its modernist past.

Listed but feels unloved

This is apparent from your arrival at Coventry station. In 2012 Owen Hatherley wrote ‘Coventry has what Birmingham so conspicuously lacks – a sense of arrival. It is in that sadly very select company of great post war stations …. there is nothing fancy …. it’s unassuming but generous modernism, a simple concrete box beautifully finished in wood and marble, clear, spacious and achingly hopeful …. marred only by adverts. What must be noticed is the ease of circulation and the absence of clutter and tat. The platforms are a Brief Encounter world of rectitude and sadness’.

RIP: the Station square

The station still looks great today and fortunately it is now listed. There are plans to expand its capacity and facilities with new platforms and a bus interchange. This is obviously a good thing, but the plans also include building a multi-storey car park sited alongside the listed building. From the promo images this will be clad in strident Virgin Trains red. It is difficult to imagine a more disastrous neighbour for the deliciously understated listed station. What idiots are promoting this? Well, Network Rail, the City Council, the unelected LEP and the elected Mayor of the West Midlands who says ‘ this will do for Coventry what Grand Central did for Birmingham’, thus demonstrating a complete lack of understanding of both cities and their stations.

Coventry's new walk

The context of the station is also changed. The ensemble of 60s buildings that previously enclosed a station square - one a 15 storey tower and the other a horizontal block with glass bridges and shops and cafes at street level, which as Hatherley says ‘prolong the crisp clarity of the station’ - have been torn down for a new pedestrian axis from the station to the city centre and to enable a proposed new office quarter.

Quality subterranean streets – the underpasses

A warm welcome – Greyfriar Green

The station is immediately south of Coventry’s inner ring road, a nightmare for drivers but visually dramatic and surprisingly permeable for pedestrians since much of it is elevated and many of the pedestrian subways are well designed and retain original tiling and artworks. They have sensible ramps around sunken gardens making them accessible for wheelchair users and cyclists. In ‘Towns in Britain’ we commented on ‘the pleasant walk from the station on a wide, clear and level path over and under the slip roads and through landscaping which merges into the attractive open space of Greyfriar Green’. But this walk did include a subway, a cardinal sin in the urbanist mantra. So a section of the ring road has been decked over to allow pedestrians to walk at grade, although they now have to cross a busy slip road.

The new City Council offices, could be Manchester

Allies and Morrison’s masterplan for the ‘Friargate office quarter’ is well considered in conventional terms, with clear streets, city blocks, urban scale massing, active frontages, pedestrian dominated spaces and landscaping. The images suggest something like Kings Cross Central. It is difficult to tell how it will turn out as so far only one block has been built, and this as the new City Council offices. The new HQ is sober, not assertive or attention seeking, boldly modelled in brick with two-storey framework and a generous arcade and café. It is a reasonable start.

Impersonating Brum, badly

Greyfriar Gate gardens are a really pleasant introduction to the city especially in May as Coventry maintains that fine civic tradition of planting sumptuous floral displays. At its apex is the spire of Christchurch, one of the three surviving and iconic medieval spires which informed much planning and urban design of Coventry’s city centre. However you will now find the most God awful new leisure centre jammed right up next to the spire of the blitzed church. Termed ‘The Wave’ and designed by Faulkner Brown it is a clumsy and ungainly circular structure, glassy below with a monstrous over sized, skew-whiff Jackie Kennedy style pill-box hat in blue cladding on top. It is simply terrible and must be a shoo-in for the next Carbuncle Cup.

What's wrong with a good swim?

The architects say ‘creating a more elegant leisure destination …. will provide residents and visitors with a world class facility.’ What it really means is the closure of the acclaimed Coventry Swimming Pool on Fairfax St with its striking winged design, huge south facing windows and sunbathing terraces. It was designed in 1956 by Arthur Ling and others and when opened in 1966 was described as the finest in Europe. There are no plans for the future of this superb listed structure which the City owns. This is outrageously irresponsible.

Civil arcades – New Union Street

Cheap novelty beside good modest design – New Union Street

The Wave is an indictment of the architecture profession, the planning system and particularly the politics of regeneration which is so addicted to such novelty toys. It is especially telling to contrast this shoddy gimmicky stuff with the adjacent, modest, commercial blocks on New Union Street, built in the 1960s with careful consideration and some elegance and pride. But at least these are not slated for demolition, unlike Bull Yard to the west of Christchurch.

Market Murals – form & fun

Rhythm, light and type

Coventry abandoned the fantasy of the Jerde plan but still wants to see major redevelopment of its shopping precincts so as to compete with Birmingham, a hopelessly lost (and self-destructive) cause. Scaled down redevelopment plans have been agreed in principle for the ‘City Centre South’ which includes the demolition of Bull Yard, Shelton Square, City Arcade, Market Way and Hertford Street. The projected regeneration scheme promises an anchor store, restaurants, cinema, bowling alley, student accommodation and luxury flats to provide vibrant life 24/7 for the city. Fortunately the highly distinctive circular market with its ‘socialist realism’ murals has been listed thanks to the Coventry Society, so it is excluded. Today the market is teeming with slightly anarchic life, as it should be, but the structure looks run down and in need of maintenance.

Materials, texture, detail and contrast – Hertford Street

So good that it must be at risk – Coventry Point

Little progress has been made with ‘City Centre South’ - hardly surprising given the dire state of the retail development market. But the plans blight a large area. Bull Yard is an attractive and lively little square at the entrance to ‘Precinct Shopping’ containing interesting murals and reliefs which are a big feature of Coventry, including William Mitchell’s ‘Three Tuns’ Aztec-like concrete mural. Shelton Square opposite the market has well considered modernist buildings and should be an attractive place, but is being deliberately run down. Hertford Street should be the priority for improvement and a start has been made with the opening up of the original wide entrance from Broadgate under Broadgate House with its ‘folk art’ carillon of Lady Godiva and Peeping Tom. Coventry Point, a 14 storey tower by John Madin which punctuates Market Way has few friends other than Owen Hatherley who writes in its defence ‘it re-asserts however violently the original future orientated impulses; its angular, twisted skyline is a celebration of wild Midland Gothic in amongst all those coolly expressed classical modernist phases.’ It is inevitably doomed.

Cutting out the crap – Broadgate House

Hatherley said of the grossly ignorant and destructive alterations to jazz up the Precincts in the 80s – ‘it's like a child scribbling on a Mondrian’. More recently Chapman Taylor’s plans for renovations to the Upper Precinct were approved by the Council despite the objections from the 20th Century Society and the City’s own conservation officer to these substantial and unnecessary alterations to the original concept and design . Fortunately Historic England have now listed key buildings including the north and south blocks, M&S and the former BHS, giving pause for reflection. The conservation and renovation of the Precincts is of national importance and central to the future of Coventry and its identity. It needs really carefully considered treatment and an imaginative concept for the future, not aping the worst of indoor shopping centres.

Listed, well done.

Modernism Restored. Coventry can do this ...

The good news is that on Corporation Street the fine Co-operative Department Store, which looks distinctly moderne, is being renovated as flats. Like so many other post-war buildings it incorporates an arcade whose pillars are etched with delightful, subtle graphics of the goods and services sold in the store. Opposite is the Belgrade Theatre with its superb brickwork and fenestration together with Stanton Williams’s elegantly austere extension. This is civilized architecture but it is on the very frontier of barbarity.

... or maybe it can't. Prefer Street View 2008.

Before & after – over saturated, clunky and dim

The race for student numbers ...

... where will this end?

North towards the ring road there is a frenzy of construction with great galumphing towers rearing skywards. Although the City’s cherished retail and office developments languish there is no stopping the inexorable tide of student living. Coventry is in the midst of a building boom not seen since the 1960s. The new towers are hideous and garish, especially ‘Study Inn’ with its Brutalist kitsch ethic. Others like Bishop’s Gate and CODE are less deliberately offensive but are still quite a poke in the eye - as bad as any student flats in Leeds, which is bad!

Universities aren't all bad – the new Alison Gingell Building

Coventry University is one of the most successful of the ex-Polytechnics and it provides much of the impetus and dynamism for the city’s economy today. Whereas the city struggles to progress its retail and office development plans, as in other ex-industrial cities the universities are in the midst of a huge building boom. The main focus of the campus is around Jordon Well and Gosford Street, close to the cathedral and the Town Hall, but development extends around much of the ring road. Few of the university’s buildings are really notable although the Lanchester Library by Short and Associates with its exotic towers is certainly arresting. However the new Alison Gingell Building on Whitefriar Street caught our eye. Close to the remains of the Whitefriar abbey, it references its context well and its saw-tooth southern fenestration seems both practical and a homage to Basil Spence’s cathedral nave. I was surprised to find it was designed by Broadway Malyan, architects of Liverpool’s infamous Futurist redevelopment.

Still not working – Broadgate Square

So has Coventry changed in the last decade? Well, apart form the University, not much. Broadgate Square has been repaved but in a rather mundane way, a lost opportunity to create a lively space at the heart of Gibson’s city centre. Key buildings around the square like the Leofric Hotel (reduced to a Travelodge) and the curtain wall department store (now Primark) are now listed. The more one sees of the Cathedral Lanes development the more outrageous it seems. It is now a restaurant complex with the usual chain suspects, which is indicative of the failure of Coventry’s retail-led regeneration plans. This has nothing to do with the style of architecture, but with the dynamics of retailing. Coventry cannot compete with Birmingham nor with on-line shopping. It needs to develop more niche markets based on the real character and qualities of the place, not on second rate shopping malls.

The best modernist city in Britain ... 

... but only if it takes this stuff seriously

Despite the increasing national and international recognition of Coventry’s modernist heritage, the city is at best half hearted about it. It sees modernism as a problem to be overcome, not its USP. The Council still seems wedded to the idea of newness, of ‘regeneration’ for its own sake. It is both backward-looking and unrealistic with all those artists' impressions of smiling happy people sipping cappuccino in the foreground masking the crap new buildings in the background. And it doesn’t happen on the City’s terms, but on those of the developer, and is quickly regretted.

A British city did this today – makes you proud

Yet Coventry is a pleasant and quite a lively place to be. This is partly because of the quality of its architecture and the highly unusual and successful relationship between modernity and medieval survivals, rather like the City of London. The Cathedral is truly world class. The parks and small open spaces are attractive, like those created in the Coventry Phoenix initiative. Within the ring road the streets are quite civilized due to ambitious traffic calming, based on Dutch principles although in England drivers are rather often more entitled than in Holland, But broadly speaking it works well and has created a much more attractive environment for the Town Hall and elsewhere.

Design and ideas, not copying

City of Culture 2017 opens up lots of possibilities for Coventry to think outside the ‘regeneration’ box. It was hugely successful in Hull, a very different city to Coventry, but with similarities too. Both suffered dreadful wartime destruction and both have suffered massive loss of confidence in the last 40 years. Both have been ignorantly castigated as ‘crap towns’. But they are not – they are highly distinctive places with extraordinary history and architecture. Hull’s City of Culture 2017 provided a huge boost in every sense but particularly in the city’s view of itself. Hopefully 2021 will do the same for Coventry and its view of its modernist heritage.

Never forget – the elephant sports hall

Today Coventry doesn’t want its elegant listed swimming pool and needs help in finding a future for it. The threatened ‘Elephant’ sports hall added in the 1970s is not listed but it is extraordinary. It straddles Cox Street on tapering legs, an apparently windowless box clad in grey zinc and formed as a series of abstract prisms. It is shocking, amazing, exciting, possibly threatening and certainly threatened. Although conventional opinion inevitably regards it as an ‘eyesore’ it seems to have captured the affection of many local people. There is a campaign to save it for a new use as an arts complex, which makes perfect sense in the context of ‘City of Culture’. Let's hope the campaign succeeds.

Modernity & originality 

9 Aug 2018

Trainspotting: a Potemkin privatisation

Swiss Trains. Courtesy eisenbahnfans.ch

Nothing like a trip to Switzerland to provide comparison with our own chronic railway system. In Switzerland the trains run like clockwork. Sleek inter-city, regional and suburban electric trains glide in and out of the stations immaculately on time. From main line stations light railways and buses fan out providing quick, absolutely reliable connections to all the small towns and villages of the hinterland. Your hotel gives you a free pass to all local transport. It is brilliant. Lausanne, where the TGV arrives, has two metro lines and also quiet, pollution-free trolley buses such as Leeds planned but were deemed by Whitehall to ‘not be in the public interest’. Lausanne’s population, by the way, is less than half that of Leeds.

Swiss Graphic Design

Yes, well dream on. Switzerland is a different world to Britain although both cling to obsolete myths of exceptionalism. Switzerland indeed managed to ‘have its cake and eat it’ in the twentieth century but it did so in a quiet, well ordered way quite unlike the blustering Britain of today. The railways are part of that orderliness. They are a key element of cementing national unity in a country of linguistic, religious and geographic division and they are an element of national pride. It was not always thus. The first railways were built privately, didn’t connect up and were financially unstable – a familiar story. The federal government took them over in 1910 and went on to develop the enviable integrated network of today. The Swiss were not stupid enough to play ideological silly buggers with rail privatisation and it is not surprising that Switzerland has the highest rail usage of any country in Europe.

SBB CFF FFS electric. Courtesy eisenbahnfans.ch

But not everything about railways in mainland Europe is great. Macron’s ‘structural reforms’ have yet to make much impact on SNCF and our recent experience of France’s grands projects was not encouraging. The TGV from Lausanne was 90 minutes late into Paris, and it wasn’t even a strike day. The air conditioning didn’t work, the toilets were disgusting and train announcements as inaudible as in Jacques Tati’s famous 1953 film ‘Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday’. A desperate attempt to sprint across Paris to catch our connection was thwarted by the hideous RER – broken down trains, slow, horribly crowded, terrible signage and none of the escalators working. And then there was total chaos at the Gare du Nord Eurostar terminal.

A twitter feed in meltdown 

It was a relief to arrive back at handsome, well ordered St Pancras with the fast, frequent Victoria Line to whisk us home. But from the Eurostar carriage window your first sight is of an ancient East Midlands Train belching diesel into the beautifully restored station. The station departure boards attest to the long list of casualties of the Thameslink disaster. Welcome to Grayling’s England.

Egotistical railways. Courtesy Train Photos

The Thameslink debacle is just one of the catalogue of disasters of Britain’s privatised rail industry, along with the chaos on Southern and the meltdown of Northern Rail and Transpennine Express. But a bigger scandal is Virgin walking away from its East Coast contract because it couldn’t make enough money. Unbelievably this is the second time this has happened. When National Express crashed out of its franchise in 2009 a publically owned operator took over and ran East Coast successfully and at a profit to the Exchequer. However in 2015 the Government’s ideological obsession with privatisation resulted in the Virgin take over. Now we have a public sector 'operator of last resort' again, 'London North Eastern Railway', but Grayling couldn't even get the atavistic name right; it should be London AND North Eastern Railway, a subtle but significant difference.

The Department for Transport

But however piss poor the private rail companies are the real failures of the rail industry are those of the Government itself. Because in what sense are the railways really privatised? The Government owns the track and pays for investment in the infrastructure. It dictates the timetables, service specification and even the rolling stock. It sets basic fares and conditions. The rail companies don’t own anything and have no long term interest. Franchises move from one company to another with little more than a change of name, livery and TUPEd staff. But the railways cost the taxpayer £5 billion a year – that’s roughly three times as much as British Rail cost in the 1990s, at present day prices.

What an absolute shower

So the railways have a facade of privatisation with a cacophony of company liveries, flashy advertising and marketing but actually civil servants and ministers are in charge. It suits the Government to pretend that the railways are privately run 'cos this fits their dogma. More importantly it conveniently blurs accountability. Who for example is responsible for the Thameslink fiasco? Is it the franchisee Govia, partly owned by SNCF? But Govia was only awarded this huge and unwieldy franchise in 2015. It includes the whole Southern network and Great Northern as well as Thameslink. DaFT (as Private Eye rightly calls the government department responsible) dreamt this one up. It also approved all the details in the Govia bid. Is Network Rail responsible? The engineering complexity of the Thameslink project and lack of in-house skills meant NR was dependent on myriad contractors and was delivered late. Meanwhile the ORR (Office of Rail and Road – the ‘independent’ quango responsible for the economic and safety regulation of the railways) told Network Rail to reduce the costs of preparing timetables and so capacity was reduced here, which meant that the new timetable was finalised far too late and so not enough drivers could be trained on the new routes. But the ORR is now ostentatiously pointing the finger at everyone else. Possibly the fault might lie with the Transport Minister and his predecessors for presiding over this shambles. Apparently not, according to Chris Grayling as he is 'not an expert in trains'. So there is the answer; no-one has overall responsibility because the railway industry has been deliberately fragmented and deliberately made inscrutable and unaccountable.

An integrated graphic system 

The Design Research Unit – take pride in that

How did this happen? Well, it is the consequence of the triumph of political ideology over experience, evidence, analysis and rational planning and investment – a very British syndrome. Britain of course invented railways but it was always wedded to the principle of private enterprise which resulted in a highly fragmented network. By the twentieth century the early dynamism and invention of the railway companies had atrophied into complacency and a lack of iinvestment. This was masked by the romance of the Flying Scotsman and later sentimental nostalgia for steam and eccentrity, epitomised by Betjeman and Flanders and Swann. The clapped out railways was part of the carnival of pageantry so beloved of the English. Although nationalised in 1947 little changed until the 1960s with the savage Beeching cuts along with the introduction of diesels and some electrification. Whereas other countries like France saw their rail networks as national assets and invested in them (the first TGV line opened as early as 1981) in Britain the railways were regarded as a liability, of little use outside the London commuter belt. Jokes about British Rail sandwiches, which still have currency today, are revealing of political and public attitudes. In reality the latter decades of British Rail were a time of great progress, with huge engineering and technical achievement. With the help of brilliant design and marketing a real national network was finally achieved.

A sticking plaster solution. Courtesy Matt Buck

However the neo-liberal zeitgeist was privatisation. Mrs Thatcher had the sense not to do it, but her successor gave us the 1993 Act which essentially set up the present buggers-muddle, which the Labour government did not reverse. This Potemkin  privatisation separates train operations from track and infrastructure. This was sold off to Railtrack whose incompetence and negligence resulted in the Hatfield disaster. It had to be re-nationalised as Network Rail. Meanwhile the rolling stock had been flogged off to private companies which leased it back to the train operators at rip off rates, effectively paid for by the ballooning public subsidy for rail. Train operations were split up into some 20 ‘franchises’. The theory was that competition would drive down costs and private enterprise would give that je ne sais qua which produces innovation and good customer service. However the reality of running the rail network meant there could be very little competition – Hull Trains being the most successful of the few ‘open access’ services.

Layer upon layer, mistake after mistake. Courtesy Hugh Llewelyn

The other great shibboleth was that the private sector would also invest in the railways and take financial risk. Franchises resemble PFIs – detailed specifications for providing public services covering many variables over a long period and are horribly complicated and unaccountable. Effectively the public sector pays much more for the private sector to take the financial risk and drive down costs, so it is worth letting Virgin et al rake in exorbitant profits. Well that was the theory anyway, but it didn’t work out that way as the Virgin East Coast debacle lays bare, and National Express and South Eastern beforehand. This amateur-night approach to risk and private sector investment goes to the heart of the problem with the current franchising system. It is just hiding or deferring government spending, like PFIs, and is also a major reason that rail finance is so inscrutable.

This is how we might do it. Courtesy Matt Buck

There are other ways to franchise. For the phenomenally successful Overground network TfL simply specifes the timetable and rolling stock required. TfL sets the fares, takes the risk and the fare income, so profits are re-invested rather than siphoned off by Richard Branson et al. Many European countries follow the same model, but of course that would not be a recommendation to the present Government.

Sheffield: 685,369 people, and 0 electric trains

However the performance of publically-owned Network Rail suggests that re-nationalisation is not by itself going to be the answer to the intractable problems of the railways. It is the chronic failures of Network Rail to deliver infrastructure improvements that have precipitated the current existential crisis of the railways. The catastrophe of Network Rail’s electrification programme has been well rehearsed. Great Western electrification, announced in 2009, has been massively delayed and costs have tripled from £874m to £2.8bn today. Meanwhile DaFT have saddled the railways with expensive to build and operate bi-mode trains, which become the rationale for abandoning much of the planned electrification. So Bristol, Swansea and Oxford will not see electric running for the foreseeable future. Similarly the Midland Main Line electrification will stop at Corby with Leicester, Nottingham and Sheffield, three of the ten biggest cities in England, relegated to bi-mode diesel power. So a government which is promoting the phasing out of diesel cars by 2040 is investing in bi-mode trains so it can continue to run diesel trains into our big cities  until, er, well after 2040 – mad or what?

Todmorden: a more difficult terrain than Switzerland?

Even more incredible given the hype about the Northern Powerhouse is the Government’s prevarication over completing electrification from Manchester to Leeds – a distance of only about 40 miles. Electrification from Liverpool to York was approved in 2011 and should have been completed by now. Grayling argues that the topography is ‘very difficult’ which sounds pretty thin having just come back from Switzerland where all the railways are electrified. But in Blighty bi-mode trains are the (expensive and unsatisfactory) solution to all problems, according to DaFT.

Newark North Gate: electrified in the 1980s. Courtesy Matt Buck

The reason Network Rail can’t deliver the infrastructure improvements required is that, after two decades of the government messing around with privatisation, it lacks the capacity and in-house resources required. The experience of the rail industry has been fragmented and squandered. When the 400km East Coast line was electrified in the 1980s British Rail delivered this on time and on budget. Of course that expertise should have been used for a rolling programme of electrification, but this knowledge, experience, skills and commitment were lost. When Network Rail took over from Railtrack a very different culture obtained.

HS2 – not very well thought through

The failures of Network Rail to modernize the network efficiently are often cited as one of the reasons why we need to go ahead with HS2. It’s too difficult to repair the old network, let's build a new one. The logic of this is terrifying – a slash and burn philosophy totally at odds with sensible use of resources and protection of the natural environment. In any event the argument rings very hollow given the latest report from the Infrastructure and Projects Authority which predicts that HS2 is likely to go 40% over budget from £56bn to £80bn, and that there is ‘no credible plan to gauge or manage progress’.

The metropolis of Toton

As we explored in our 2013 blog ‘High Speed to Nowhere’ the premises and projected benefits of HS2 are highly questionable. But as a grand prestige project it has developed a life of its own, free from effective external scrutiny, ‘too big to fail’. Of course the huge cost of HS2 will have a massive impact on investment in the existing rail network as the IPA highlight. This is already happening with HS2 explicitly cited as a reason why there is no need now to electrify the MML.

Nottingham: 729,977 people, 0 electric trains

The main rationale of HS2 is that it will promote economic growth in the Midlands and North, although even the theoretical models show most economic benefits accrue to London, not the provinces. Certainly cities in the Midlands and North require major investment in their railway infrastructure but HS2 does not address their most pressing issues, poor public transport within conurbations and poor connections between cities. Actually trains to London are already frequent and fairly fast, although they could be improved by much more modest investment.

An alternative strategy would see investment across the network and in cities rather than focused on grands projects. The argument that this would not happen because more modest and incremental improvements are not sexy enough for Government really just underlines the huge problems of transport politics. A grown up approach to investment is required, not one driven by glossy marketing.

To the North, not North East London

An alternative rail improvement to HS2 would involve making the best use of existing capacity. For example, the huge investment in Crossrail and Thameslink takes outer suburban trains out of Paddington and King’s Cross, allowing these termini to handle more main line trains. And actually only half of the Crossrail trains will run west of Paddington, so there is an opportunity to divert outer suburban WCML trains onto Crossrail releasing significant capacity at Euston without the massive engineering operation and environmental destruction required for the new station. If planned ECML and MML improvements are actually delivered this will significantly increase capacity on these lines. Then again the Chiltern Line is the old GWR main line to Birmingham and is shorter than the Euston route. With electrification and modest upgrades more and faster trains could operate to Birmingham from Paddington releasing capacity on the WCML.

Too many First Class coaches. Courtesy Matt Buck

Much additional capacity could also be provided if inter-city trains were longer and with fewer largely empty First Class coaches. Thameslink already operates 12 carriage trains but others on the same lines such as East Midlands Trains, Hull Trains, Grand Central often run only 4 or 5 carriages. Prioritising investment in improved signaling would allow more trains to run on existing track.

Manchester Piccadilly platforms

However there remains a major issue of congestion on the approaches to Birmingham and Manchester and platform capacity at New Street, Piccadilly, Leeds City and other stations. The mix of inter-city trains and local stopping trains on the same track is a problem.   Additional platforms at Manchester can be provided at Piccadilly with the four-tracking the Piccadilly-Oxford Road route, which DaFT amazingly told Grayling wasn’t necessary! At Birmingham the problem is more complex. What is really required is an additional low level station at New Street, the sort of thing being done in cities like Antwerp, Stuttgart, Malmö and Vienna. But a smiling Grayling endorses the cheapskate ‘Midlands Connect’ plan for a ‘One Birmingham’ station which pretends that New St, Moor St and the new HS2 Curzon St are really just different ‘terminals’. Big joke, as explored in our recent Birmingham blog.

Local stopping trains and terrible graphics

A sensible strategy would focus large scale investment on public transport within provincial cities, especially Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds rather than expensive and environmentally damaging new lines to London duplicating existing infrastructure. Manchester and Birmingham desperately need proper underground Metros such as their European counterparts have. This would help release main line capacity currently used by suburban trains. Northern Powerhouse Rail, what was HS3, should also be a priority. The advantages of this strategy are that it would be cheaper overall, improve the wider existing network, be more flexible and incremental in relation to actual demand and other changes and allow the real issues of rail transport needs to be addressed.

Bristol: 617,280 people and 0 electric trains

It will be a challenge to get a sensible rail investment strategy because the problem is not just about HS2 but about the structure, political role and decision making of the industry. In a sense the ‘big bang’ HS2 project is a desperate response to the sclerosis of the industry that can’t manage to electrify 40 miles across the Pennines, or take wires into Bristol Temple Meads, for god’s sake.

So this happened, re-issuing the BR corporate identity manual

The problems of Network Rail are not easily fixed, especially given the political culture of short-termism, mendacity and self-delusion within which it must work. The only real solution is to re-invent a properly resourced, integrated and holistic rail organization like British Rail. Over time this would develop the capacity, experience, memory and public service ethos that is currently lacking. It will need a medium to long term investment plan to allow for sensible planning. This does not mean that BR mk2 would need to run everything directly but it must have the capacity to effectively manage contracted services and it must be able to require co-operation within the currently fragmented industry. Given the current political delusion, deception, incompetence and confusion of responsibility, this outcome is highly unlikely. Is it any wonder the rail industry is in such a mess? But remember, this did not happen by accident - it was very deliberate.