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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Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.


Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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