These modern ghost towns show the danger of an undiversified economy

The Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans in 2015, a decade after Hurricane Katrina. Image: Getty.

Do you remember the good old days before the ghost town?” asked The Specials in their classic 1981 hit. Released as riots swept the country, the song was describing the hollowing out of Britain’s cities, as – faced with urban decay, deindustrialisation, unemployment and violence – many of their residents just left.

In the bigger picture, the trend has long been in the other direction, and the tide of people moving from rural areas to the city seems pretty universal. Ten years ago, for the first time, half the world’s population was thought to live in a city. This is expected to hit two-thirds by 2050; it’s already at around 54 per cent.

Zoom in, though, and look more locally at individual cities especially in the post industrial world, the march of urbanisation seems a lot more fragile.

New Orleans

Unfortunately for the pride and wallets of most New Orleanians, their city is a textbook example of urban decline. When the oil industry, which had supported the city for so long, collapsed in the late 1970s, unemployment swelled and people began to leave.

Post-oil New Orleans failed to diversify its industries: the city fell back to tourism to provide economic support, but that didn’t quite cut it. Since then, poorer areas of the city have become synonymous with ongoing urban decay and depopulation, and between 1970 and 2000 the city’s residents moved out in their thousands, shrinking the population by 18 per cent.

The city’s economic problems were further compounded in 2005, with the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. Flooding 80 per cent of the city, it displaced huge numbers of people, many of whom never returned.

Liverpool

The UK has seen its own share of urban decline. The great northern city of Liverpool has experienced some of the worst, with the population of the city proper shrinking by 18.8 percent in the four decades after 1971.

The docks in 1920. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

As in New Orleans, this decline was largely due to the disappearance of what brought people to the city in the first place:  jobs. Liverpool had boomed as the north’s great port, and well into the 20th century the city’s economy was centred around its docks.

But as containers replaced the labour intensive break bulk cargo, unemployment in many dock towns skyrocketed. To make matters worse, many of the industries that the docks had served moved abroad.

Why has the city struggled to move on? One explanation is outdated skills: an in depth knowledge of cargo ships isn’t really going to help you in a bank. At any rate, the lack of jobs has meant that people left – and large swathes of Liverpool were left vacant.

Kitakyushu

Kitakyushu, in western Japan, was once a thriving steel town. It was home of the Imperial Steel Works, whose grandiose name fitted its importance to the industrialising nation.

And the city’s industrial might didn’t go unnoticed abroad. During WWII, the atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki was actually intended for Kitakyushu; it was only cloud cover over the latter that protected it.

At its peak the steel industry in Kitakyushu employed 50,000 people – but today, it provides jobs for as little as 4,200. As steel production moved to developing countries where overheads were cheaper, citizens were left without a jobs. Despite steady automotive and robotic industries, they couldn’t provide employment for the large number of workers who’d worked at the steel mill.

So, the now familiar story happened there, too: widespread unemployment, leading to depopulation and urban decline. Last month, Kitakyushu’s amusement park, Space World, closed – and nothing screams decay quite like abandoned space themed rides. 


These examples are in no way exhaustive; the list of depopulating ghost towns is long, and economics is often the cause. The common thread here is that all three were one-industry towns. New Orleans had oil, Liverpool the docks, and Kitakyushu steel. But the free-market stripped these cities of their main source of employment, leaving them hollowed out.

Blaming the markets, though, is liking blaming the wind if your house gets blown down: it may be to blame, but that doesn’t mean you can do literally nothing. These cities didn’t diversify when they had the chance – and when their industry left, they declined.

So to all you urban planners out there, if you value the longevity of your city, put on ‘Ghost Town’ by The Specials and get diversifying.

 
 
 
 

How can you travel between Edinburgh and Glasgow? Let me count the ways

A train at Falkirk High. Image: Geof Sheppard/Wikimedia Commons.

How many train lines link Edinburgh and Glasgow? Go on, guess. Two? Three? Surely not four?

No, our two biggest cities in Scotland, separated by just 41 miles as the crow flies, have five – yes, five – different routes between them now. Here is a look at each route, from north to south.

Counter-intuitively, the quickest route does not dart straight across between the cities. From Edinburgh, which is slightly further north than Glasgow, the express service heads north west, past the ruin of Linlithgow Palace, the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots, as far as Falkirk High before heading south west to Glasgow Queen Street station. This can be as quick as 42 minutes, but only twice a day, although work is being done to have all services run this fast. The rest of the time it takes 47 minutes, on average; from Monday to Friday it runs every 15 minutes.  As the express route, this is the most frequently used service and is the main recipient of Scottish Government spending for connections between Edinburgh and Glasgow, having received £870m in investment in recent years.

The new route via Cumbernauld starts out along the same line, but instead of stopping at Falkirk High goes to Falkirk Grahamston. From there it takes a different line through Cumbernauld, famous for its 1960s brutalist town planning. After that the train stops at various suburbs in the north east of Glasgow such as Stepps, before again reaching Queen Street station, albeit from the north east. This service started in December 2018 and takes about 1hr15.

A rail map of the central belt. The new line is so new it isn’t on here. Image: Scotrail.

The route via Airdrie and Bathgate looks like it would be quicker than the main Falkirk High route, as it is closest to resembling a straight line between Glasgow and Edinburgh. This service, however, stops at a plethora of stations across West Lothian, North Lanarkshire and Greater Glasgow.

All in all, there are 21 stops between Edinburgh Waverley and Glasgow Queen Street, which can add up to a grand total of 1hr17 (some journeys are slightly quicker). This provides a decent service for the many small towns on the route, but is obviously not a good option for anyone wanting a speedy journey between Glasgow and Edinburgh.


This line does uniquely stop at the lower level station at Queen Street, though, and passengers get to travel below Glasgow’s city centre to Charing Cross and Partick. This route is not to be confused with the Glasgow Subway, which this cut-and-cover line predates by ten years. After coming above ground, the train continues west of the city, with the option to head on to the affluent commuter towns of Bearsden and Milnagavie or to Helensburgh on the Firth of Clyde.

Thus, someone can hop on a train in the western outskirts of Glasgow and get to the centre of Edinburgh, all in one go; it will just take a very long time. Helensburgh Central to Edinburgh Waverley takes about 1hr50. As Queen Street and Partick rail stations are integrated with the Glasgow Subway, it also means you can continue your journey around Glasgow circular subterranean experience.

The Shotts line has an abundance of stations, and so journeys that stop at each one can take up to 1hr30, although there are services with fewer stops that take 15 minutes less. This line dips further south slightly than the Airdrie/Bathgate route and slowly works its way through stations in the west of Edinburgh. It then heads through towns such as Livingston and Shotts. Unlike the first three routes, this line ends at Glasgow Central, and therefore the train takes you through the south of Glasgow before crossing the River Clyde.

The Shotts Line is also used by Cross Country services going from Glasgow to cities in England, such as Bristol, via Edinburgh; and these train will make fewer stops between the two. Passengers from Glasgow are also able to stay on trains that pass through Edinburgh and continue on to the seaside towns in East Lothian of North Berwick and Dunbar.

Finally, there is the V-shaped route between Edinburgh and Glasgow. This looks like it would take the longest, but surprisingly can be done in 1hr20 due to there being few stops. From Glasgow, the line goes south east through Motherwell along one branch of the West Coast Mainline, before arriving at the Carstairs junction. From there the line veers sharply north east along the other branch of the West Coast Mainline to Edinburgh. This route has the downsides of being slow, and not even offering many stops along the way to make up for it.

So basically, if you want to travel between Edinburgh and Glasgow, just go via Falkirk High.

Pete Macleod tweets as @petemacleod84 and runs Pete’s Cheap Trains.