This is the route of the Hogwarts Express

The Hogwarts Express. Image: Warner Bros.

Last night, I went to the theatre to see the first part of Harry Potter & the Cursed Child. Tonight, I'm going to see the conclusion. (Yes, I'm 36 years old, so what, bugger off.)

There are signs all over the theatre, asking the audience to “keep the secrets” – not to give away details of the plot, and so spoil it for those who haven't seen it yet. And I have no desire to spend my weekend fighting off an army of angry Potter fans, so I'm not going to say anything except this one thing:

At one point, you can see a map showing the route of the Hogwarts Express.

There are probably some other things that happen in that scene, but I have no idea what they are because I was so busy studying the map.

It’s not a tube-style line map, to be clear. (I mean, why bother? There are only two stops.) Instead, it’s a map of the British Isles with the train’s route superimposed upon it.

From memory, the route looks a bit like this:

The Hogwarts Express starts at Kings Cross (obviously). But instead of following the East Coast Main Line, through Peterborough and Lincolnshire, it runs slightly to the east, before making a sharp turn west at the Wash. It then heads north again, presumably following the main line to Edinburgh and across the Forth Bridge, then does a weird u-turn-y bit in western Scotland.

It has more twists and turns in it than you'd expect, is my main point here. This is probably because what I'm reporting on is a theatrical prop rather than a map of an actual railway line, but nonetheless, it does suggest the "Express" part of the name may be a bit of a misnomer.

One over thing about the map that might be worth noting: although it's a screengrab which I've scribbled on, a quick search of Google Maps does actually reveal the location Hogwarts. It's here:

That's not far from Rannoch Moor, one of the locations used in the Harry Potter firms. There are some pictures added by users, too.

And it's had excellent reviews:

Best we can tell, this is not the location of the Pottermore offices, let alone an actual magic castle. Instead it seems merely to be an easter egg placed there by Google.

I wouldn't bother going there in the hope of actually finding something more interesting than a loch, is my point here. But if lochs are you thing, then be my guest.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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Worried Guildford will be destroyed by Chinese trains? Then you might not be very nice

A South West Train at Waterloo. Image: Getty.

Despite the collapse of everything else that more-or-less worked in 2008 Britain, before the Hunger Games years began, some things remain constant. One of the things that’s near-mathematical in its constancy is that, when a new train contract is let, people on both sides of the political spectrum will say extremely stupid things for perceived partisan advantage.

This week saw the award of the contract to run trains to the south west of London, and unsurprisingly, the saying stupid things lobby was out in force. Oddly – perhaps a Corbyn-Brexit trend – the saying of egregiously stupid racist lies, rather than moderately stupid things, was most pronounced on the left.

As we’ve done to death here: rail in Great Britain is publicly run. The rail infrastructure is 100 per cent publicly owned, and train operators operate on government contracts, apart from a few weird anomalies. Some physical trains are owned by private investors, but to claim rail isn’t publicly run would be like claiming the NHS was the same as American healthcare because some hospital buildings are maintained by construction firms.

Every seven years or so, companies bid for the right to pay the UK government to operate trains in a particular area. This is the standard procedure: for railways that are lossmaking but community-important, or where they are within a major city and have no important external connections, or where there’s a major infrastructure project going on that’ll ruin everything, special measures take place.

The South Western England franchise is not one of these. It’s a profitable set of train routes which doesn’t quite live up to its name. Although it inherited a few Devon and Dorset routes from the old days, its day job involves transporting hundreds of thousands of Reginald Perrins and Mark Corrigans from London’s outer suburbs and Surrey, Hampshire and Berkshire’s satellite towns to the grinding misery of desk jobs that pay a great deal of money.

(If your office is in the actual City of London, a fair trek from the railway’s Waterloo terminus, then you get the extra fun of an extra daily trip on the silliest and smelliest Tube line, and you get even more money still.)

Anyway. The South Western concession went up for auction, and Scottish bus and train operator First Group won out over Scottish bus and train operator Stagecoach, the latter of which had run the franchise for the preceding 20 years. (Yes, I know 20 isn’t a multiple of 7. Don’t ask me to explain, because I can and you wouldn’t enjoy it.)

First will manage the introduction of a bunch of new trains, which will be paid for by other people, and will pay the government £2.2bn in premiums for being allowed to run the service.

One might expect the reaction to this to be quite muted, because it’s quite a boring story. “The government does quite a good deal under which there’ll be more trains, it’ll be paid lots of money, and this will ultimately be paid back by well-paid people paying more train fares.” But these are not normal times.


First Group has decided for the purposes of this franchise to team up with MTR, which operates Hong Kong’s extremely good metro railway. MTR has a 30 per cent share in the combined business, and will presumably help advise First Group about how to run good metro railways, in exchange for taking a cut of the profits (which, for UK train franchises, tend to be about 3 per cent of total revenue).

The RMT, famous for being the least sensible or survival-oriented union in the UK since the National Union of Mineworkers, has taken exception to a Hong Kong company being involved in the railways, since in their Brexity, curly sandwich-eating eyes, only decent honest British Rail has ever delivered good railways anywhere in the world.

“A foreign state operator, in this case the Chinese state, is set to make a killing at the British taxpayers’ expense,” the RMT’s General Secretary Mick Cash said in a press release.

This is not true. Partly that's because a 30 per cent share of those 3 per cent profits is less than 1 per cent of total revenues, so hardly making a killing. Mostly, though, it’s because it’s misleading to call MTR “state-owned”. While it’s majority owned by the Hong Kong government (not the same body as the central Chinese state), it’s also partly listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. More to the point, this a really odd way of describing a transport authority controlled by a devolved body. I wouldn’t call the Glasgow subway “UK-state owned” either.

So this fuss is intensely, ridiculously stupid.

There’s an argument – it’s a bad argument, but it exists – that the entire UK rail system should be properly privatised without government subsidy.

There’s an argument – it’s a slightly less stupid argument, but it exists – that the entire UK rail system should be returned to the public sector so we can enjoy the glory days of British Rail again.

The glory days of British Rail, illustrated in passenger numbers. Image: AbsolutelyPureMilk/Wikipedia.

But to claim that the problem is neither of these things, but rather that the companies who are operating trains on the publicly run network are partially foreign owned, makes you sound like a blithering xenophobe.

In fact, if you think it’s reasonable for a Scottish company to run trains but not for a Hong Kong company to run them, then that's me being pretty bloody polite all things considered.

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