“Uniquely, Sheffield's dividing line runs directly through the city like the Berlin Wall”

Beech Hill, Broomhill, Sheffield. Image: 02Vallencel/Wikimedia Commons.

When media types talk about Sheffield as a hyper-creative, culturally left-field ‘Bristol of the North’ (or a Leipzig of the West), they’re talking about Sheffield A and not Sheffield B.

Sheffield A is a healthy, wealthy and leafy mix of greens, golf courses and gastropubs stretching from Fulwood and Ranmoor in the west to Nether Edge, Meersbrook and Dore in the south. This is the city that made international headlines in recent months with a campaign to protect its street trees from an incompetent and complacent council.

Sheffield B is an adjacent but almost entirely unconnected city running down the Don from Upperthorpe to Hillsborough, up to Ecclesfield in the north and stretching to Tinsley, Attercliffe, Darnall and Gleadless Valley in the east. It is a place economically characterised by poverty, lack of opportunity, low-skilled work, poor quality housing stock and even poorer public transport.

Uniquely for a British city, where pockets of deprivation are usually nestled uncomfortably between well-to-do suburbs, Sheffield’s dividing line runs directly through the city like the Berlin Wall. How did this happen?

The consensus opinion seems to be that the poorer side of the city is centred around the steel mills, factories and associated workers’ housing that doubled Sheffield’s population many times over from the Industrial Revolution right up until the decline of the steel industry in the 1980s.

The wealthier half, much of it dating from the turn-of-the-century, represents the flight of the managers and mill owners from the noise and smog of Blake’s “dark satanic mills”. The rich ensconced themselves in an enclave high above their employees, literally: Sheffield A is significantly hilly, particularly the parts that border the Peak District to the west. The spacious Victorian houses often feature spectacular views across the seven hills.

(Of course, this invisible border isn’t fixed forever. The formerly industrial area of Kelham Island has been transformed by the forces of gentrification, its proximity to the centre ensuring that its redbrick warehouses have been repurposed as gin bars, food courts and pricey flats for single professionals.)

Despite the best efforts of the pitiful privatised bus service, it is possible to cross from one city to the other. In 2013, the ‘Fairness On The 83’ project found that average life expectancy falls by 7.5 years for men and almost 10 years for women along a bus route that runs from Ecclesfield in the north to Ecclesall in the south, right across the divide. In the same year, the Sheffield Fairness Commission reported that “a baby girl born and who lives her life in one part of the city can expect to live, on average, almost 10 years longer than a similar baby girl born and living her life about four miles away, by virtue of nothing more than the socio-economic circumstances and area she was born into”. Remember, this is in one of the richest countries in the world.

We know from the work of Wilkinson and Pickett in The Spirit Level that unequal societies perform worse on almost every social metric. They’re unhealthier, unhappier and less educated, with higher rates of mental illness, property crime, obesity, infant mortality and teenage pregnancy. Their work shows that it’s not just poorer people who suffer: even the well-off do worse in societies with higher rates of economic inequality.


Sheffield has recently been labelled the ‘low pay capital’ of the UK, but you wouldn’t know that from poking around the leafy suburb of Hallam – Nick Clegg’s former constituency – which is one of the wealthiest in the entire country. The result of this division is like a real life version of China Miéville’s The City & the City. The richer half of the city don’t even see their poorer fellow citizens, as they would in London or Manchester, where disadvantaged areas like Tower Hamlets and Southwark rub shoulders with the moneyed comfort of Islington and Greenwich.

t may be cynical, but when I hear people talking up Sheffield as “the largest village in England” I sometimes wonder if what they really like about the city is that they can effectively reside in a gated community, living day-to-day without ever entering Sheffield B. Even the city centre is segregated to some degree, with the boutiques and bookshops of Division Street and the Peace Gardens forming a marked contrast to Waingate and The Wicker, two shopping streets which appear to been consigned to a barely managed decline.

The lack of interaction between these parallel cities goes some way to explaining the shock that reverberated around Sheffield A when the city as a whole voted to leave the European Union, 51 per cent leave to 49 per cent remain. For the people on the right side of the line, it hadn’t even crossed their minds that over half of their fellow citizens had been left behind. It’s a tale of two cities.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.