James Brokenshire’s rejection of the One Yorkshire devolution deal absolutely stinks of partisanship

Communities secretary James Brokenshire. Image: Getty.

There was, by some accounts, much mirth in the civil service when the cabinet minister responsible for devolution to the cities and counties of England was first appointed. He’s called James Brokenshire.

We’ll come back to him: let’s start in Yorkshire. The failure of Leeds to get a devolution settlement, at a time when Manchester, Liverpool and even Middlesbrough had managed it, has been a source of some consternation among the city’s politicians. Much of the problem has come down to endless rows over geometry. Should any devolution deal just cover the old West Yorkshire? A larger Leeds City Region? Or something bigger still?

After endless back and forth, the latter convincingly won out among local leaders across the political spectrum. The One Yorkshire plan – it does what it says on the tin – won the backing of Dan Jarvis, Labour mayor of the Sheffield City Region mayor, as well as 18 other council leaders, making it by far the most popular possible settlement for England’s biggest county.

But, in what looks a lot like nominative determinism, Brokenshire today made clear that the only way England’s biggest county would get a devolution settlement was in bits:

“I recognise the ambition that underpins these proposals but they do not meet our devolution criteria.

“However, we are prepared to begin discussions about a different, localist approach to devolution in Yorkshire. We know there is local appetite for other devolution elsewhere in Yorkshire, with representations having been made previously by the Leeds City Region, York and North Yorkshire and the Humber Estuary.

“In line with current Government policy, we would be prepared to consider any proposals submitted on the basis Sheffield City Region deal is completed, honouring the mayor’s commitment to local people and unlocking £900m investment in the area.”

There’s the grain of a point hidden here somewhere. Yorkshire in some ways is a silly thing to devolve to, as it’s a huge area, and – unlike Greater London or Greater Manchester – covers several different economies with radically different needs. Splitting the county into four – a Sheffield bit, a Leeds/Bradford bit, a Hull & East Riding bit, and a huge but not massively populated North Yorkshire fringe – would mean you don’t end up with, say, plans for a West Yorkshire tram network foundering because it can’t win support in Scarborough.

On the flip side, though: you can make the same argument against devolution to Scotland or Wales, and they’re pootling on okay, and with smaller populations than Yorkshire, too. Part of the battle with any new political unit is getting public support, and Yorkshire is a brand in a way “the Leeds City Region” isn’t. (I have, I should confess, changed my mind on the importance of this point.)


And One Yorkshire, unlike whatever alternatives Brokenshire favours, has one crucial advantage, in that it actually exists and has backing.

Most damningly of all, it’s very far from clear what “criteria” the deal failed to meet because the government has never published them. It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that the criteria this Tory government was most concerned about was keeping the left-leaning Sheffield region out of any Yorkshire devolution settlement, on the grounds that doing so would turn a safe Labour-region into a marginal one that a Tory mayoral candidate might one day hope to win.

It seems churlish, just 45 days from the economic cliff edge, to complain that the government is also letting us down on devolution. But today’s news is a reminder, nonetheless, that this government’s abject cynicism and complete inability to do anything without a partisan lens extends far, far beyond Brexit.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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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.