Is it really worth running HS2 via Old Oak Common? This guy thinks he has a better plan

London Euston, proposed terminus for High Speed 2. Image: Getty.

Independent rail campaigner Michael Bell on his alternative plan for HS2.

High Speed 2 Ltd says it is having difficulty designing a station and route for HS2 through London. That may be because it is still uncertain whether the project is going ahead at all, but there are planning difficulties too.

The proposed HS2 route starts from the west side of Euston, and stops after only three miles at Old Oak Common, where it meets the Elizabeth line from Heathrow. That’s because, when the route was designed, it was seen as important for the “National Airport” to make connection with HS2, the country’s main railway.

This is muddled thinking. A passenger from Heathrow need only stay on the Elizabeth Line for eight minutes and then change, to get to Euston in a total of under 20 minutes. Not a big deal to those who have flown the Atlantic, but a considerable deal to those who have 12 minutes added to their everyday north-south journey.

That delay consists not only of stopping time at Old Oak Common but also of the 20 extra miles run westward before HS2 can turn north. What’s more, building that route will be very expensive and very disruptive. Muck, noise and heavy lorries for 10 years.

Old Oak Common has caught the eye of developers, and it may well be that both public good and profit can be made by redeveloping Old Oak Common – but that does not depend on HS2. It is hard to imagine that many will come from the north just to visit Old Oak Common.

An alternative

I suggest instead the Thorn Shaped Route. It gets its name from the letter þ, called “thorn”, used in Old English to write the sounds which we now write “th”. It would run from Glasgow to Edinburgh, Newcastle, Middlesbrough, York to Leeds, where it would split. The eastern half of the loop would then run via Sheffield, Nottingham, and Leicester; the western half via loop Manchester, Stoke, Birmingham and Coventry; before the two recombine at Rugby and continue London. In such a way, it would link up all the centres of this country east of the Severn.

Ringby would, a sort of Midlands Engine/Northern Powerhouse+. 

Within London, the route would start from the east side of Euston, and run in tunnel to West Hampstead, from where it would join a viaduct over the M1. The length of overhead to be covered is 10 kms, Let us say the spans are 100 M Considering the amounts of earth to be moved and concrete to be poured, this must be much cheaper than HS2’s route – and avoiding Old Oak Common would mean the trains can get up to full speed straight away.

As to its appearance, the new viaduct would look like the Byker viaduct of the Tyne-Wear Metro: a very ordinary bit of urban architecture, of the sort we could all drive along or live near. Noise from the motorway will overwhelm the noise of trains on the route, while passengers will get a good view of London.

The Byker viaduct, Newcastle. Image: author provided.

The route would then serve a road/rail interchange at “Waterdale”, the intersection of the M1 and M25. This will be far more useful than Old Oak Common: a rail route runs from Rickmansworth in the west to very near Waterdale, and could be extended east to St Albans and Hatfield. 

From there, the route runs north as the 5th and 6th track of the West Coast Main Line. Through Linslade, in southern Bedfordshire, the WCML takes a curve which is too sharp for these speeds – so my route instead takes a straight  line through a cutting on the west side of Linslade, taking with it the 4th and 3rd tracks of the WCML. This removes the only speed restriction between London and Milton Keynes, enabling that town to be served by services like the Javelin services which serves Kent.


If the route were to be run at up to 18 trains per hour, as HS2 propose for its own trunk route, there can be no station at Milton Keynes. That’s because at that intensity you cannot stop selected trains and not others: all trains must stop, and Milton Keynes cannot warrant so many trains.

So the route instead follows the original Birmingham-London route though Wolverton, which, amazingly, is still there. The route forks at Rugby, one arm running north to Leicester and beyond, the other heading west to Coventry and beyond.

You can read more about the Thorn Shaped Route on its website.

 
 
 
 

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: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

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.