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bringing important railway connections together


Northern leaders would have everyone believe the South East gets all the investment it wants with everyone whizzing around on high speed lines. Here is the reality........


Amid all the hysteria and frenzied comment about the abandonment of the Birmingham–Manchester section of HS2, so many misguided statements have been uttered alongside untruthful comparisons made between the North and South. It feels like a perpetuation or revival of the ‘class war’ about which we shall undoubtedly hear more during the Labour Party conference.

Those who peddle HS2 as the panacea to their imagined gulf between the North and South do no service whatsoever to their electorate. Indeed, it has been noticeable how the outraged comments from worshipful mayors speaking from their high and mighty positions of power have hardly aligned with those of ordinary folk in northern towns and cities. The phantasm of HS2 seems to have wooed their leaders into believing that its presence will instantly transform their economies, their standard of living and their overall well-being. As the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for. However, in making such a bold decision, Rishi Sunak has unwittingly spared Sir Keir Starmer from a very invidious predicament – unless he is otherwise persuaded to embrace this particular chalice.

The overwhelming majority of Northerners would gain nothing from HS2 – and certainly if most people’s experience here in the South is anything to go by. We acquired the so-called HS1 purely because Kent lies 21 miles from the rest of Europe and a channel tunnel had been a dream harking back to Queen Victoria’s reign. Subsequently, le tunnel sous la Manche only makes sense because it connects into the French Trains à Grande Vitesse (TGV) system and enables non-stop Eurostar services to reach speeds of 186mph to and from Paris, etc. After it was opened, the ideas for domestic services came forward – but at a cost no one imagined at the time. Because the commuter uptake on these high-fare Japanese-built Javelin trains was less than anticipated, the once-brilliant fast services on Kent’s Tonbridge main line were trashed.

British Railways’ 1961 Kent electrification scheme was a triumph with its hourly fast journeys between Folkestone and London taking just 80 minutes. Now they drift along, tediously and lackadaisically calling at virtually all stations, the clear intention being to push people onto HS1 with its premium fares to help recoup the cost. The trouble is it delivers them to St Pancras instead of the business heart around the City of London (so add another 20+ minutes!). We would not wish this scenario to be inflicted on the North and Midlands if HS2 ever transpired.

Nevertheless, the greatest delusion of all is that everything is hunky dory in the South – as is repeatedly spouted by ill-informed individuals who have no idea of the actual reality. To this end we have produced the above table which shows how almost all trains in the unfairly-maligned and undeserving South East are, in fact, no better and often slower than under British Rail. With longer journey times and average speeds between 40 and 50 mph, maybe the Worshipful Mayors of Manchester and West Yorkshire would like to ponder the truth before making more vacuous headline-grabbing statements.

Even on HS1, the Javelins only attain an average speed of 79mph on the high-speed line between Ashford International and London St Pancras. Now look at the average speeds of trains between London–Manchester, London–Birmingham and London–Leeds, on what they call their ‘old Victorian network’ and which these Mayors complain they have to suffer as ‘second-class citizens.’ These services equate with the speeds on HS1 and, furthermore, are about twice as fast as all the main lines in the ‘wealthy’ South East which, your Worships, also operate on ‘old Victorian networks.’

Nowadays they’re moaning about lack of speed, but just a few years ago it was capacity with complaints about overcrowding. Yes, it was often bad, but we noticed the North had overcrowded 4 or 6-car trains whereas the South had overcrowded 12-car trains. Longer trains would have largely solved the Northern problem, whereas in Kent and Sussex the rail companies were at their absolute wits end about what to do. Double-deck trains? Create 16-car trains? Quadruple the Brighton Line throughout? Somehow find 5 more paths for the maxed-out Tonbridge Line? Network Rail extensively studied all of this in great detail.

Finally, the civil servants came up with a brainwave, every bit as redolent of what Sir Humphrey Appleby in BBC’s ‘Yes Minister’ might discuss with his colleague: “Ah, Bernard, we have a very big problem with overcrowding. The Department’s ‘PIXC’ regulation [Passengers In Excess of Capacity – viz: 1 sq metre per person] is being well-exceeded, what do you suggest we do?”  Bernard: “Oh, ah, um, er, run more trains? Bigger trains? Introduce Brighton Main Line 2 as Lord Adonis and others suggest?” Sir Humphrey: “Hah! No, no, dear chap – we change the regulation!”  So that saw their PIXC slashed to 0.5 sq metres, whilst they introduced new 12-car Thameslink trains which had more but narrower seating – and considerably more standing capacity.

Connectivity is now the buzzword, with Rishi promising conference on Wednesday 4th October: “We will reinvest every single penny of £36 billion in hundreds of new transport projects in the North and Midlands across the country.” So nothing for long-awaited rail projects to ease theSouth’s enduring problems then.....? Meanwhile –

“The south east is a major contributor to the national economy, adding more than £200 billion annually – that’s more than Scotland and Wales combined. The regional transport network is nationally and internationally significant." – Transport for the South East.

“The South East is a gateway for economically important freight and passenger travel, so we’re committed to ensuring local residents can rely on a world-class transport network. I was thrilled to attend the Connecting the South East Conference this week, to understand how the Government can work together with Transport for the South East and local stakeholders to continue boosting transport connections and help better connect communities to grow the economy.” – Transport Minister, Richard Holden MP, addressing TfSE on 22nd September 2023.

Let’s not forget what George Osborne, former Chancellor of the Exchequer said about Sussex: “a part of the country so often ignored or left behind under previous Governments.” Likewise, many will recall Lord Andrew Adonis’s assessment of the situation: “The loss of Brighton’s second main line via Uckfield and the direct London services it provided was a massive error of the 1960s. It needs to be reversed. On any realistic analysis of capacity requirements over the next generation it is stark staring obvious that the second mainline to London is needed.”

Since the Beeching era and despite Sussex having the most congested network according to Network Rail, here’s the number of railway stations reopened in the South East –0. And here’s the total miles of railway lines reopened –0. During Labour’s last stint just 12 miles of railway were reopened under its much-vaunted ‘Strategic Rail Authority’ – and all of these were, surprise, surprise, in Labour constituencies. As we have shown throughout the forty years of this campaign, unlike the rest of Europe, here in the UK the state-controlled railway directs investment to political advantage, rather than an expedient business solution. Consequently, few of us anticipate Sir Keir Starmer, as with his Labour predecessors, will care anything about the South’s decades-long rail problems should he get to walk through No.10’s threshold in 2024.

Trouble is, so far it’s proven the Conservatives likewise care nothing.