Britain's departure boards should tell us less about train operating companies, and more about service speed

"Look how fancy I am," says the GWR train. "Yes, but I don't care what corporate entity owns you," I reply. Image: Hitachi Rail Europe.

From the train station near where I grew up, trains go in one of two directions. In a dichotomy that tells you an awful lot about everything going wrong in the UK, departures from Didcot Parkway, in Oxfordshire, pretty much go towards London or away from London.

On platforms 1 and 3 you can go to thrilling places like Oxford, Bristol, Newport, Cardiff, and (pardon me, I’m getting overexcited) Swansea. On any other platform – but mostly platform 2 – you go to London Paddington. All this is courtesy of Great Western Railway (formerly First Great Western). GWR, as it's colloquially known, is infamous for its punitive policies that make it harder to take bikes on trains – a policy so egregiously awful it was once debated in Parliament. 

And so, as I stood in Didcot Parkway with the shiny new bike I'd got for christmas, and I searched for the stopping service to Paddington, as I hadn’t managed to book a bike berth on the stupidly pedantic high-speed airliner-style service that zips along the M4 corridor at a pleasing pace... It was then, that I was hit by a revelation about trains in the UK. A revelation that can even bridge the divide between those happy with the mostly-privatised system we have now, those who would wish for full privatisation now, and the majority who want to see our railways re-nationalised. It was this:

British trains have a branding problem.

And no, I’m not talking about the fact that everyone goes on about how bad they are, even though to be perfectly honest we’re actually quite lucky.


Didcot Parkway, where dreams come to die. Image: Matt Buck.

As the minutes ticked by, and the time I would have to lug my bike up the stairs to the platform decreased, my panic grew more and more severe. Despite scouring the departure boards, the only London-bound trains I could find were the fast service to London Paddington (platform 2), and the local stopping service terminating at Ealing Broadway.

This was no use to me, as I couldn’t take my bike on the tube from Ealing Broadway all the way back to my place, and I had too many bags filled with leftover Christmas booze to be able to cycle it the ten or so miles.

I was in a blind panic – a panic so great that I did the unthinkable and actually asked for help.


At which point, I was told that the Ealing Broadway train does actually go all the way through to London Paddington, but the powers-that-be lie about its final destination so hapless commuters don’t get on it in a rush and end up an hour later into Paddington than they were planning.

Truly, I tell you, this is a failed state.

What hope for the (metaphorical, since I know we live in a Kingdom) republic when we must lie on our station departure boards so as not to mislead the public?

But it triggered a dangerous chain of thought. What information do we need from our trains, and what information is totally useless?

Does it materially affect my journey that my service provider is GWR, rather than, say Abellio Greater Anglia, Southern rail, or even – heaven forbid – Arriva Trains Wales?

Seeing as Arriva is secretly run by the German government, Abellio is run by the Dutch, and Southern is run by the shady and perpetually-incompetent Govia Thameslink Railway, it’s not even like these designations are offering any kind of corporate accountability – a mechanism by which I know at whom to get angry on the occasion of my train arriving 13 minutes behind schedule.

But while corporate branding and franchise designation reign supreme, our  railway information systems actually tell us very little of use. Contrast this with Germany.

A really German departure board with some impressively late trains. Image: Fabian 318.

At Düsseldorf Hauptbahnhof you’re faced with a departures board that tells you a train destination and intermediate stops (the same as in the UK, when they’re not lying to you), the platform number, and the time of departure along with any information about delays.

But then the Germans offer a little extra nugget, a simple but vital code that makes perfect sense dem Deutschen Volke who use the system regularly. IC, says one. ICE, smugly notes another, preening its feathers. RE, whispers one, a little ashamed. RB, offers another, shunned and dejected.

Wonderful! Marvellous! The Ealing Broadway Question (the great national challenge of our time, akin to the forever rumbling East Lothian Question) is solved!

That's because what these initials do is tell the passenger what kind of service is on offer; how fast it’ll travel, and many stops it’ll visit, and what kind of train will be used.

ICE, ICE, Baby. Image: Jivee Blau

ICE, or Intercity-Express, offers high-speed travel, stopping only at key cities and interchange hubs. IC – InterCity – offers a long-distance, quite-fast way of travelling, stopping at a few more provincial cities, regional centres, and large towns. Regional-Express (RE) is a, you guessed it, more regional service, stopping more often but still offering a faster service that won’t stop at every piddly village’s sad excuse for a station. That’s what the Regionalbahn (RB) is for.

It’s a beautiful system that tells you everything you need to know without having to lie on departure boards – and it’s the same across much of the continent. The French TGV is not only an iconic brand, but one that actually tells you about the functionality offered. All the name ‘Virgin Trains’ tells you is to expect gimmicks and a high-probability of some over-moneyed blond saddo getting on for a photo-op as if it’s still the Noughties and Blair’s hanging about smiling leeringly.

We get it, you're a hip guy. Image: Hardo Müller.

It’s over, Richard.

The Spanish have Renfe’s AVE, while the Swiss have ICs, IRs, REs and ECs – a beautiful network of usefully-branded, functionally-helpful trains.

At this point, I don’t care what you do the trains. Scrap the franchising system, privatise the lot, and call me when it all goes the same was as Railtrack. Or go for full renationalisation and we can all enjoy another round of gross stagnation of passenger numbers.

But whatever you do, don’t tell me if it’s Great Northern or Chiltern Railways, Southeastern or Abellio ScotRail. Give me a useful indication of what kind of train I’m dealing with, and be done with it.

After all: you don’t really need the London Overground banging on about how it’s run by Arriva UK Trains Limited, do you? 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.