Here’s everything we learned from this map of British Rail’s InterCity services, c1981

An InterCity 125 leaves London Kings Cross for Edinburgh in 1978. Image: Getty.

Between 1948 and 1997, Britain’s railways were an arm of the British state, for much of that time trading – a lot of thought went into this, one assumes – under the brand name British Rail.

But that wasn’t the only name to be found on the network during the era of nationalisation. Not all railways were created equal: the most prestigious, longer distance and – to generalise wildly – more profitable routes were branded as “InterCity” services. From 1976 onwards, these routes even had their own special trains, the InterCity 125, whose name tells you both a) which route they were used on and b) how fast they might go on a good day if you were lucky.

I vaguely remember all this from my childhood. What I didn’t remember is that there was a map. But here, thanks to the Independent’s Jon Stone, is the 1981 vintage:

Some observations.

This is clearly designed for the London market

The capital is very clearly at the centre of the network, despite definitely not being at the centre of the country. The train times shown are the fastest journeys to London. The headline (“The Inter-City Overground”), the entire style of the map, seem intended to bring to mind the tube map.

It’d be easy to conclude from this that InterCity meant “between London and other cities”. That’s not quite true – although the rail network was centred on London, especially after the early 1960s Beeching axe, there were “Cross Country” InterCity services which bypassed the capital altogether.

Nonetheless, this particularly map was clearly aimed at people trying to get either to or from London:

It’s a strange definition of InterCity

Does a train from London to Harwich really belong in the same box as one to Scoland? Okay, if you’re going to Harwich you’re probably getting a boat, so on balance the journey counts as long distance, but all the same, the train will only take you to Essex.

And don’t get me started on Brighton. That’s barely outside London at all. Surely these are just commuter services?

While we’re at it:

What’s going on with that white line to Dover?

Is it coloured differently to show how important it is? Or because it isn’t an InterCity service at all, but since, pre-Channel Tunnel, it’s the route you’d take to the continent, it seems worth highlighting anyway? In which case why did Harwich get to be InterCity when Dover didn’t?

Maybe it’s just there because once you’ve decided to centre your map on London you don’t want to end up with a strange unsightly gap in the bottom right hand corner. Who knows.

Anyway, more important things:

A bunch of cities lost direct trains to London when privatisation happened

There was much excitement in Shropshire in 2014: that December, it finally lost its status as the only county in England without a direct rail link to the capital, when Virgin began running trains from Shrewsbury to London. (Edit to add: On Twitter, it’s been pointed out to me that a previous operator, the Wrexham & Shropshire, had run from 2008-11.)

The odd thing is, though, in 1981, this train already existed. It’s just that it got canned when British Rail did, forcing proud Salopians to change at Birmingham for nigh on 20 years.

It’s a similar story with several other places. There are direct trains from London to Bradford these days – but they’re indirect and pootling and take an hour more than they did in 1981, so generally speaking you’re better off changing at Leeds. As for Middlesbrough there are still no direct trains to London – although Virgin plan to start running them in 2020.

Why didn’t these routes survive privatisation? One possible reason is that they simply weren’t profitable, so nobody wanted to run them. (Great.) But there is another, less cynical possibility, which we’ll come to below.

Some of the journey times have got longer too

One of the most common responses when Jon tweeted the map was along the lines of, “Wow, my train has actually got slower.”

And it’s true, it’s depressingly easy to find examples. The InterCity map gives a 22 minute journey time from London to Reading. The fastest today seems to be 25, and most trains take around 40. For London to Bristol it gives a journey time of 1hr25: the fastest now seems to be 1hr37, the average around 1hr52.

So – things have got worse, right?

Well, maybe. But there are two mitigating factors to consider, courtesy of the former Financial Times transport correspondent Robert Wright:

To put it another way: services may be slightly slower now, but there are more of them, and they serve more stations. That probably, on balance, makes for a more useful rail network.

This might explain the end of some direct services, too. Okay, so there are no direct services from Middlesbrough to London. But there are very frequent services from Middlesbrough to Darlington, and from Darlington to London, and while changing is a pain in the bum, this might on balance work out quicker than waiting for the one direct train a day.

It takes bloody ages to get to Inverness

I know it’s a long way, but 10hr44 from London? Really? Surely it must be faster today?

It is, as it happens. You can now do it under 9 hours. Luxury.

A late 1980s TV advert for InterCity services.

This map dates from around 1981. In 1986, British Rail underwent a process known as “sectorisation”, which basically meant dividing it into three.

One was InterCity. Another was Network SouthEast, the London commuter zone (although this also included a couple of services previously branded as InterCity). Everything else got dumped into a third box, labelled Regional Railways.

I started this little tour by saying that, despite appearances, the InterCity network was not entirely about London. Despite my protests, however, those who ran the railway network as a whole clearly felt that most of it was.

I’m not really going anywhere with this. It just depresses me a bit, that’s all.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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To fix the housing crisis, we need to decide what success would look like

Building houses in Ilford, 1947. Image: Getty.

Recent years have seen growing public and political recognition that there is a crisis in housing. This has led to a widening debate on the causes and potential solutions.

However, within this debate there has been little in the way of a consensus view of what constitutes the current housing crisis – or what a “crisis-free” housing system might look like. There seems little clear idea of any measurable goal. The nearest we have as a target to aim at has been a series of aspirational numbers for new-build homes, with limited clarity on what to expect if we were to hit those numbers.

Clarity about what success would look like is essential. Without a framework for what we need and want from housing, our ability to understand and fix it appropriately will be compromised. A lack of clarity also increases the risk of unintended consequences from misguided policy interventions.

The current housing debate is, to quote UCL’s Michael Edwards, “bedevilled by rival simplifications”. There are several, quite often competing explanations for why we have a housing crisis. For many it is our failure to build homes at the same rate as projected household formation. This failure might be assigned to the planning system, the greenbelt, housebuilder business models, the land market, or NIMBYs.

For others, the crisis is a result of falling interest rates, rising credit supply, low income growth, wealth and income inequality, tax incentives, or simply our fixation on house price growth. For some, there is no shortage of homes, rather a poor distribution. And for others there isn’t really a housing crisis.

Despite the apparent contradictions in this mix of positions, each of the arguments that support these various views may hold significant elements of truth. Housing is a complex and interconnected system within the economy and society. There is no simple single housing market: there are multiple markets defined by location, property type, tenure, and price. Therefore, there is no simple single housing crisis. Instead we have multiple overlapping issues affecting different parts of the country in different ways and to varying degrees.

There may be factors that influence all housing markets across the UK, indeed across much of the globe. There will be others that impact more locally and within specific housing sectors.

So, for instance, there is growing acceptance by many experts that the cost and availability of credit has been one of the biggest, if not the biggest, drivers of increases in national house prices over the last twenty years.


But it is not the only factor. The growth in buy-to-let has contributed to the financialisation of housing, with homes increasingly thought of as an investment rather than a place for people to live. A lack of supply is predominantly an issue for London and its surrounds, but there are localised shortages elsewhere, particularly of specific types or tenure of homes.

Planning (including a lack of) and the land market limit the responsiveness of supply to rising demand. Housing is unevenly distributed, mostly across generations but also spatially and within generations. Some areas don’t need a net increase in housing but desperately need existing poor-quality homes improved or replaced. In many areas the biggest issue is low (or negative) income growth and employment insecurity.

All these issues and others play a part in defining “the housing crisis”. Having a framework for what we need and want from housing, combined with an understanding of the complexities and interactions that run through the housing market, is essential to resolving the problems they create.

The problem with ‘households’

A misunderstanding of the complexities of housing can be found in one of the most frequently stated explanations for the crisis: a lack of new supply compared with household projections.

Unfortunately, this argument is flawed. Household projections are not a measure of housing demand. The effective demand for new housing is determined by the number of people or companies willing and financially able to buy property. Meanwhile new supply only accounts for around 12 per cent of total transactions and probably less of available homes for sale.

Importantly, even if some analysis may suggest there is no shortage of supply, that does not mean there is no need for new supply. Household projections are a statistical construct based on the past, not a direct measure of future housing demand. But they are still important if used appropriately within a framework for what we need and want from housing.

If we are more explicit about the role of household projections in measuring housing need and the assumptions they contain, then the ‘supply versus household projections’ argument might be recast as a debate on changing household sizes and the consumption of housing (both in terms of space and multiple properties).

This then implies that we should be clearer about the minimum acceptable amount of housing people need, while also accounting for what they want. Should younger people still expect to form households at the same rate and size as their parents? The assumptions and projections around future household sizes should be moved from the background, where they are typically only discussed by planners and researchers, to the centre of the debate.

They should be just one part of a framework for success that explicitly states what we need and want from housing – not just in terms of size but also cost, tenure, quality, security, and location – and better defines the minimum we are prepared to accept. That will provide a clearer understanding of where housing is failing to meet those requirements and help set objectives for how to fix it. These could then be applied appropriately across different markets.

“Rather than trying to return to the relatively short-lived 20th century ideal of mass home-ownership, perhaps we should be focussing our efforts on making renting cheaper”

If measurement against the framework shows that households are not able to form at an appropriate rate and size relative to what they need, then we probably need to increase supply while possibly encouraging older households to move out of larger homes. If rents are too expensive then we may need to reform the rental sectors and increase supply. If housing quality is poor, then we need to work harder at improving and replacing existing stock. If many areas are struggling due to low (or negative) income growth and employment insecurity, then we probably need to look beyond just housing. It might even question whether we need to rebalance the economy and infrastructure investment away from London and its commuter zone.

Having a framework for success may even highlight which issues we can fix and which we can’t. For example, it looks likely that we are stuck with a low interest rate and hence high house price to income market. Under those conditions, prospective first-time buyers will continue to struggle to raise a deposit and access home-ownership irrespective of how much new supply can be realistically delivered.

Rather than trying to return to the relatively short-lived 20th century ideal of mass home-ownership, perhaps we should be focussing our efforts on making renting cheaper, higher quality, and more secure as a long-term home. Increasing new supply would be an important tool in achieving that outcome.

When we have a framework for what success could look like, our ability to understand and fix housing appropriately will be dramatically improved. It would be an important step towards making housing available, affordable, and appropriate for everyone that needs it. It would also be more useful than simply setting a nice round number national target for new homes.

Neal Hudson is an independent housing analyst, who tweets as @resi_analyst. This article originally appeared on his blog.