A housing estate in South London has a playground only richer children can play in

Not this playground. Image: Getty.

A simple children’s playground has become the latest symbol of the disturbing rise of stigma in our housing sector. The Baylis Old School development in South London has shocked and angered in equal measure as it has emerged that a playground developed on the site, and originally intended for use by all residents, has been restricted to block social residents from accessing the communal play areas.

Our housing system is widely acknowledged to be broken and in a state of emergency, but what’s often missed from this analysis is how badly this affects children who are subject to the often brutal outcomes of a property market that doesn’t take them into account. This development has been designed in such a way as to literally segregate the children in social homes from the other children.

The Baylis Old School is just one development. But it is symbolic of a much deeper problem – and a harsh reality that segregation and stigma are being institutionalised in our housing system.

In January, Shelter published the findings of our independent commission into the future of social housing, the result of the biggest exercise of listening to social tenants in recent times. It found more than half of the social tenants we spoke to felt they are portrayed unfairly, and one in six feels looked down upon because they live in a social home. A social home can change a life just as much as a job or an education, and yet we have normalised the idea that it’s somehow second class.

And it’s not just in social homes that our broken property market has institutionalised stigma. As Shelter has highlighted, private landlords and private letting agents are frequently putting up “No DSS” signs on adverts for properties or otherwise refusing to rent to those receiving benefits. These are people who can afford the rent, have exemplary records as tenants and yet are told their money isn’t good enough simply because they are relying on benefits as part of their income.

A home is a fundamental need. It’s the platform from which everything else we achieve in life can happen. Without a safe home everything is uncertain. And yet the market we are relying on to provide these safe homes is one in which discrimination is the new normal.  

We cannot go on like this.

Those children living in social homes in the Bayliss Old School development just want to play in the playground outside their window. The fact they can’t should give us cause us to ask some pretty fundamental questions. Yes, greater wealth will probably always get people a better and nicer home. But do we want to be a society where that wealth segregates and separates, or do we want to build the spaces which bring people together? Do we want a housing market which treats those who need some help from the state as if they are second class? Do we want to go on like this?

Our country has rarely felt as divided as it does today, but it really doesn’t need to be this way. Social housing, if built in the right way, and properly invested in, can be a source of national pride and unity. It can help people put down roots and it can build strong communities.

The Shelter Commission on social housing laid out a route to a better future where these practices are ended and we invest in three million new social homes throughout our communities for all families who need them. Now is the time to seize that opportunity. For the many who need a safe home and for the children told a playground outside their window is not for them.  

Greg Beales is campaign director at the housing charity Shelter.


What are Europe’s longest train journeys?

The Orient Express was a pretty long train. Image: Getty.

For reasons that aren’t clear even to me, a question popped into my head and refused to leave: what’s longer? Britain’s longest train joruney, or Germany’s?

On the one hand, Germany is quite a bit larger – its area is 70 per cent more than Great Britain’s. On the other hand, Great Britain is long, skinny island and Germany is much rounder – the distance from John O’ Groats to Lands End is over 1,400 km, but you never have walk over 1,000 km to cross Germany in any direction.

And it turns out these factors balance almost each other out. Britain’s longest train, the CrossCountry from Aberdeen in Scotland to Penzance in Cornwall, runs 785 miles or 1,263 km. Germany’s longest train, the IC 2216 from Offenburg in the Black Forest to Greifswald on the Baltic coast, is exactly 1,300 km. Germany wins by a tiny distance.

Except then I was hooked. What about the longest train in France? Spain? Italy?

So I did what anyone would do. I made a map.

The map above was all drawn with the Deutsche Bahn (Germany Railways) travel planning tool, which rather incredibly has nearly every railway in Europe. The data quality is better for some countries than others (the lines in France aren’t quite that straight in real life), and the measurements may be a bit off – it’s not always easy to find the length of a train service, especially when routes can vary over the year – but it gives us a good idea of what the routes look like.

Let’s start with the UK. The Aberdeen to Penzance route isn’t really for people who want to go all the way across the country. Instead, it’s a way to link together several railway lines and connect some medium-to-large cities that otherwise don’t have many direct services. “Cross-country” trains like these have existed for a century, but because they crossed multiple different company’s lines – and later, multiple British Rail regions – they tended to get ignored.


That’s why, when it privatised the railways, the government created a specific CrossCountry franchise so there was a company dedicated to these underused routes. If you want to get from Edinburgh to Leeds or Derby to Bristol, you’ll probably want a CrossCountry train.

The usual route is Edinburgh to Plymouth, but once a day they run an extra long one. Just one way though – there’s no Penzance to Aberdeen train. 

The longest train in Germany is weird – at 1,400 km, it’s substantially longer than the country itself. On the map, the reason is obvious – it takes a huge C shaped route. (It also doubles back on itself at one point in order to reach Stuttgart).

This route takes it down the Rhine, the biggest river in west Germany, and through the most densely populated patch of the country around Cologne and Dusseldorf known as the Ruhr. Germany’s second and third longest trains also have quite similar routes – they start and end in remote corners of the country, but all three have the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan area in the middle.

You’re not meant to take the IC 2216 all the way from north east to south west – there are much more direct options available. Instead, it’s for people who want to travel to these major cities. They could run two separate trains – say, Offenburg-Dusseldorf and Griefswald-Cologne – but making it a single route means passengers benefit from a bit more flexibility and helps DB use its rolling stock more effectively.

France’s longest train exists for a very good reason. Most of France’s high-speed lines radiate out from Paris, and it’s very hard to get around the country without going to the capital. Usually to get from Marseille on the Mediterranean to Nantes near the Atlantic, you’d need to take a TGV to Paris Gare de Lyon station, then get the Métro across the city to Gare Montparnasse.

Once a day though, this TGV avoids this faff by stopping in the suburb of Juvisy and turning around without going into the centre. This lets passengers travel direct between the coasts and reduces the traffic through Paris’s terminals in the rush hour. The exact length of this route isn’t clear, but Wikipedia says it’s about 1,130 km.

Spain’s longest train is very different. This is the Trenhotel sleeper service from Barcelona to Vigo, and it’s pretty fancy. This is a train for tourists and business travellers, with some quite luxurious sleeping cabins. But it is a regularly scheduled train run by the state operator Renfe, not a luxury charter, and it does appear in the timetables.

Being dry, hot and quite mountainous in its middle, most of Spain’s cities are on its coast (Madrid is the one major exception) and as a result the train passes through relatively few urban areas. (Zaragoza, Spain’s 5th largest city, is on the route, but after that the next biggest city is Burgos, its 35th largest,) This is partly why overnight trains work so well on the route – without many stops in the middle, most passengers can just sleep right through the journey, although there are occasional day time trains on that route too if you want to savour the view on that 1,314 km journey.

Finally, there’s Italy. This is another sleeper train, from Milan in the north to Syracuse on the island of Sicily. It goes via Rome and travels along the west coast of... wait, it’s a train to the island of Sicily? How, when there’s no bridge?

Well, this train takes a boat. I don’t really have anything else to add here. It’s just a train that they literally drive onto a ferry, sail across the water, and then drive off again at the other side. That’s pretty cool.

(As I was writing this, someone on Twitter got in touch to tell me the route will get even longer in September when the line to Palermo reopens. That should be exciting.)

So those are the longest trains in each country. But they aren’t the longest in Europe.

For one thing, there are some countries we haven’t looked at yet with very long trains. Sweden has some spectacular routes from its southern tip up into the Arctic north, and although the Donbass War appears to have cut Ukraine’s Uzhorod to Luhansk service short, even Uzhorod to Kharkiv is over 1,400 km. And then there are the international routes.

To encourage the Russian rich to take the train for their holiday, Russian Railways now run a luxury sleeper from Moscow to Nice, passing through France, Monaco, Italy, Austria, Czechia, Poland, Belarus and Russia. This monster line is 3,315 km long and stretches across most of the continent. That’s got to be the longest in Europe, right?

Nope. Incredibly, the longest train in Europe doesn’t actually cross a single border. Unsurprisingly, it’s in Russia, but it’s not the Trans-Siberian – the vast majority of that’s route is in Asia, not Europe. No, if you really want a long European train journey, head to Adler, just south of the Olympic host city Sochi. From there, you can catch a train up to Vorkuta on the edge of the Arctic Circle. The route zigzags a bit over its 89 hour, 4,200 km journey, but it always stays on the European side of the Ural mountains.

Bring a good book.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray often tweets about this kind of nonsense at @stejormur.

All maps courtesy of Deutsche Bahn.