In the North of England we don’t have to remember British Rail: we’re still stuck with all its old trains

An Arriva Trains Northern Class 142 Pacer at Leeds. Image: Hugh Llewelyn/Wikimedia Commons.

The Prime Minster was asked about rail nationalisation by Andrew Marr. She rolled out the pathetic line, “I remember British Rail”, in a tone of voice that is the preserve of the smart aleck.

Why is this argument pathetic? Because it implies that a 2017 nationalised railway would be exactly the same as BR 1992 – that there would have been no evolution, growth or change in those times.

My response to Theresa May is that I don’t have to remember BR. I live in York so, when I catch a train, 9 out of 10 times I board British Rail rolling stock. Let me take you through them.

To London!

I’ll start with the good stuff. In 1991 BR completed the electrification of the East Coast Mainline. It achieved this on budget, and only seven weeks late. Network Rail would be delighted if any of their electrification projects came in seven months late, let alone seven weeks.

New trains arrived: the Intercity 225. The electric locomotive is capable of 140mph (225kph), but because the government wouldn’t pay for upgraded signaling, they are limited to 125mph. They did bring journey time improvements: 25 years ago you could travel from York to London in 101 minutes. Today, however, it takes 110 minutes, and you’re on the same Intercity 225, albeit with new seats and carpets.

There is nothing wrong with these trains – I’m travelling on one as I write this – but it is still a BR experience, not a memory, even though a Virgin logo has superseded the Intercity Swallow on the seat across from me.

To Birmingham!

The Cross Country route also used to be served by Britain’s greatest train, the Intercity 125. Today, rather than those seven, majestic coaches of standard class luxury, I now suffer a 4 coach Voyager, a train designed by an airline.

I despise the Voyager so much, I literally go out of my way to avoid them. When I travel to Sheffield, I get on a 30 year old Express Sprinter to Leeds and change there on to another.

Never underestimate the simple pleasure of being able to look out of a train window: even Wakefield is a better to look at than the back of all those Voyager seats. In 1992 Birmingham was 131 minutes from York, but the Voyager is quicker than a 125: the torture only lasts 112 minutes.

To Manchester!

Good news: things have improved since BR, with new trains and a more frequent service.

A Class 185 Desiro Train at Manchester Piccadilly. Image: Spookster67/Wikimedia Commons.

I like the Desiro trains that run on the Transpennine route: they’re spacious and have big windows. But they are still only 3 coaches, the same as the BR ones they replaced, and because these are modern trains they have significantly less seats. So lots of people are standing, despite the increase from two trains per hour to 4 between York and Manchester. There has been a nine minute journey time improvement, though, which is good.

To Scarborough!

This route has the same new trains as Manchester, what with it being a through service between the two. But these trains are heavy: the term used in the technical press is “lard butt”.

The excess of weight means they do more damage to the track, so they aren’t allowed to run as fast as they could. They do accelerate quicker, though, which means the journey time is the same 48 minutes now as it was in 1992.

But – Northern Trains has a plan for a new York-to-Scarborough service with lightweight trains, so we may finally see a quicker service. Those new, slimline trains will be late BR Express Sprinters dating to the late 1980s.

To Hull!

I was pleasantly surprised last week when I popped over for some Culture and it only took 56 minutes. I can’t recall a time when it took less than an hour.

Turns out its a Sunday thing: it’s still 66 minutes on weekdays. For a bit of context I once cycled from York to Hull in 100 minutes, but I did have a backwind.

Last week’s train may have been quicker, but it was still very BR. By this I mean that the 30 year old train has never been refurbished. Same tables and chairs, original wall panels, overhead racks and colour scheme. Same doors, same toilets with the same confusing button to lock the door that people still don’t press. There may have been four different liveries on the outside, but once you step on board, the only thing that’s been replaced are the seat covers.

A train is generally expected to be in service for 30 years. At 15 years they receive a half-life refurbishment. At 30, if they are still needed, they will go for a life extension refurb. The entire Northern fleet missed out on the half-life refit, when all their internal fixtures and fittings should have been stripped out and replaced with new. But we still put up with the overhead racks rattle and squeak as they did when BR bought them.

To Harrogate!

This is the humdinger. If you are lucky, you get on a Sprinter, 1984’s finest. But if your luck is out you’ll find a Pacer waiting in platform 8.

The Sprinter is the more comfortable train, because it has the standard number of wheels per coach – that is, eight – and it has secondary suspension. The Pacer threw away a hundred years of coach design when it was built with only four wheels. Any chance of a comfortable train was also chucked out.

The downside of the Sprinter is that all the seats precisely misalign with the windows: it doesn’t matter which seat you get, you will be craning your neck once you’ve finished checking Twitter. Windows are the only area that a Pacer wins over every other train: they are basically strip glazing from end to end and offer a great view as you pass over Knaresborough viaduct.

The seats, however, are literally from a bus factory, and being 30 years old represent the absolute pinnacle of uncomfortable bus seat design. To make matters worse, the seat spacing is only suitable for people who don’t have knee caps.

Yet it’s not just the trains that are very British Rail: the signalling is also pre-privatisation.

A few minutes out of York the train stops at Poppleton, a small station in one of York’s detached suburbs. The observant passenger may spot the signalman leave his box and walk to the train to hand the driver a token. Only once in possession of this lump of metal, the driver is allowed to enter the single line of track: this ensure that you can never accidentally end up with two trains on the track at once.

At the next station, the train rejoins the double track, and another signalman is on hand to take back possession of the token. But the real wheeze is that a couple of miles later the whole process is repeated for the second section of single track as far as Knaresborough. This isn’t taking me back to 1992, but to 1892, at least.

What this shows is that the last major railway investment in Yorkshire and the North East happened in the 1980s. British Rail did a good job for us. But 25 years of privatisation has brought little benefit to this region, and a fraction of what was achieved by BR in the decade leading up to its sell off. BR left York with a fleet of trains with an average age of under 10 years, and that stud is all still with us today.

So, Prime Minister, you may remember British Rail – but I don’t have to, I experience it nearly every time I board a train.

That said, with BR you couldn’t travel from Dundee to York First Class for £20 and receive free beer. I’m on my fourth bottle. Cheers, Virgin Trains.

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Owning public space is expensive. So why do developers want to do it?

Granary Yard, London. Image: Getty.

A great deal has been written about privately owned public space, or POPS. A Guardian investigation earlier this year revealed the proliferation of “pseudo-public spaces”. Tales of people being watched, removed from or told off in POPS have spread online. Activists have taken to monitoring POPS, and politicians on both sides of the pond are calling for reforms in how they are run.

Local authorities’ motives for selling off public spaces are normally simple: getting companies to buy and maintain public space saves precious public pounds. Less straightforward and often overlooked in this debate is why – given the maintenance costs, public safety concerns and increasingly unflattering media attention – developers would actually want to own public space in the first place.

To answer that question it’s important to note that POPS can’t be viewed as isolated places, like parks or other public spaces might be. For the companies that own them, public spaces are bound up in the business that takes place inside their private buildings; POPS are tools that allow them, in one way or another, to boost profits.


In some cities, such as Hong Kong and New York, ownership of public space is a trade-off for the right to bend the rules in planning and zoning. In 1961 New York introduced a policy that came to be known as ‘incentive zoning’. Developers who took on the provision of some public space could build wider, taller buildings, ignoring restrictions that had previously required staggered vertical growth to let sunlight and air into streets.

Since then, the city has allowed developers to build 20m square feet of private space in exchange for 80 acres of POPS, or 525 individual spaces, according to watchdog Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS).

Several of those spaces lie in Trump Tower. Before the King of the Deal began construction on his new headquarters in 1979, he secured a pretty good deal with the city: Trump Tower would provide two atriums, two gardens, some restrooms and some benches for public use; in exchange 20 floors could be added to the top of the skyscraper. That’s quite a lot of condos.

Shockingly, the current president has not always kept up his end of the bargain and has been fined multiple times for dissuading members of the public from using POPS by doing things like placing flower pots on top of benches – violating a 1975 rule which said that companies had to provide amenities that actually make public spaces useable. The incident might suggest the failure of the ‘honour system’ under which POPS operate day-to-day. Once developers have secured their extra square footage, they might be tempted to undermine, subtly, the ‘public’ nature of their public spaces.

But what about where there aren’t necessarily planning benefits to providing public space? Why would companies go to the trouble of managing spaces that the council would otherwise take care of?

Attracting the ‘right sort’

Granary Square, part of the £5bn redevelopment of London’s Kings Cross, has been open since 2012. It is one of Europe’s largest privately-owned public spaces and has become a focal point for concerns over corporate control of public space. Yet developers of the neighbouring Coal Drop Yards site, due to open in October 2018, are also making their “dynamic new public space” a key point in marketing.

Cushman Wakefield, the real estate company in charge of Coal Drops Yard, says that the vision of the developers, Argent, has been to “retain the historical architecture to create a dramatic environment that will attract visitors to the 100,000 square feet of boutiques”. The key word here is “attract”. By designing and managing POPS, developers can attract the consumers who are essential to the success of their sites and who might be put off by a grubby council-managed square – or by a sterile shopping mall door.

A 2011 London Assembly Report found that the expansion of Canary Wharf in the 1990s was a turning point for developers who now “assume that they themselves will take ownership of an open space, with absolute control, in order to protect the value of the development as a whole”. In many ways this is a win-win situation; who doesn’t appreciate a nice water feature or shrub or whatever else big developer money can buy?

The caveat is, as academic Tridib Banerjee pointed out back in 2001: “The public is welcome as long as they are patrons of shops and restaurants, office workers, or clients of businesses located on the premises. But access to and use of the space is only a privilege and not a right” – hence the stories of security guards removing protesters or homeless people who threaten the aspirational appeal of places like Granary Square.

In the US, developers have taken this kind of space-curation even further, using public spaces as part of their formula for attracting the right kind of worker, as well as consumer, for nearby businesses. In Cincinnati, developer 3CDC transformed the notoriously crime-ridden Over-The-Rhine (OTR) neighbourhood into a young professional paradise. Pouring $47m into an initial make-over in 2010, 3CDC beautified parks and public space as well as private buildings.

To do so, the firm received $50 million  in funding from corporations like Procter and Gamble, whose Cincinnati headquarters sits to the South-West of OTR. This kind of hyper-gentrification has profoundly change the demographics of the neighbourhood – to the anger of many long-term residents – attracting, essentially, the kind of people who work at Procter and Gamble.

Elsewhere, in cities like Alpharetta, Georgia, 3CDC have taken their public space management even further, running events and entertainment designed to attract productive young people to otherwise dull neighbourhoods.

Data pools

The proposed partnership between the city of Toronto and Sidewalk Labs (owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet) has highlighted another motive for companies to own public space: the most modern of all resources, data.

Data collection is at the heart of the ‘smart city’ utopia: the idea that by turning public spaces and the people into them into a vast data pool, tech companies can find ways to improve transport, the environment and urban quality of life. If approved next year, Sidewalk would take over the mostly derelict east waterfront area, developing public and private space filled with sensors.

 Of course, this isn’t altruism. The Globe and Mail describe Sidewalk’s desired role as “the private garbage collectors of data”. It’s an apt phrase that reflects the merging of public service and private opportunity in Toronto’s future public space.

The data that Sidewalk could collect in Toronto would be used by Google in its commercial projects. Indeed, they’ve already done so in New York’s LinkNYC and London’s LinkUK. Kiosks installed around the cities provide the public with wifi and charging points, whilst monitoring traffic and pedestrians and generating data to feed into Google Maps.

The subway station at Hudson Yards, New York City. Image: Getty.

This is all pretty anodyne stuff. Data on how we move around public spaces is probably a small price to pay for more efficient transport information, and of course Sidewalk don’t own the areas around their Link Kiosks. But elsewhere companies’ plans to collect data in their POPS have sparked controversy. In New York’s Hudson Yards development – which Sidewalk also has a stake in – ambiguity over how visitors and residents can opt out of sharing their data when in its public square, have raised concerns over privacy.

In Toronto, Sidewalk have already offered to share their data with the city. However, Martin Kenney, researcher at the University of California at Davis and co-author of 2016’s ‘The Rise of the Platform Economy’, has warned that the potential value of a tech company collecting a community’s data should not be underestimated. “What’s really important is the deals Toronto cuts with Sidewalk may set terms and conditions for the rest of the world," he said after the announcement in October.

The project could crystallise all three motives behind the ownership of POPS. Alongside data collection, Sidewalk will likely have some leeway over planning regulations and will certainly tailor its public spaces to its ideal workers and consumers – Google have already announced that it would move its Canadian headquarters, from their current location in Downton Toronto, into the first pilot phase of the development.

Even if the Sidewalks Lab project never happens, the motives behind companies’ ownership of POPS tell us that cities’ public realms are of increasing interest to private hands.

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