There’s one English county whose county town is in a different county

Kingston Bridge. Image: KTO288/Wikimedia Commons.

It’s not unusual, when you have an area with two big towns that dominate it, to stick the capital in a more neutral place. Australia has Canberra because of Melbourne and Sydney’s rivalry; Brazil has Brasilia because Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo are in much the same boat.

This is less common in the UK. London, Cardiff and Belfast are by far the biggest towns of their constituent countries, and Edinburgh gets to be the capital despite being rather smaller than Glasgow because the ‘thousands of years of history’ card is a strong one.

What is very unusual anywhere – outside of actual colonies – is to have your capital in a completely different place from the territory it governs. Even the people of West Germany recognised this, with West Berlin being an odd semi-occupied zone rather than the capital of their country. This was instead in Bonn, a lovely but boring country town that you should absolutely visit, and which filled the kind of role as capital that John Major did as Prime Minister.

And yet, if you’re a Londoner, you’re within an Oyster ride of precisely this arrangement. And you don’t even have to leave the city’s boundaries.

The county of Surrey, as it’s defined these days, is a pipe-shaped lump of land that roughly tracks the south-western quadrant of the M25, stretching from the M3 to the M23, and running until you run out of suburbia and hit real countryside. Or, if you prefer public transport, South Western Railway’s outer-suburban trains. It’s slightly further out of London than Reginald Perrin or The Good Life, but closer in than Butterflies or the Vicar of Dibley.

But it used to be grand. Almost all of what is now South London was in the mediaeval county of Surrey. The Canterbury Tales were written there, Shakespeare’s plays were debuted there; the things that the guilds who controlled the City of London didn’t like took place there. And the county town of Surrey was in what is now Walworth, one of the bits of inner south London that the Tube map still doesn’t quite feature, but within half an hour’s walk of Bank.

By the 1880s, it was clear that London had spread beyond the borders that ancient English rules had laid down, and so the London County Council was created, encompassing pretty much everywhere we’d now think of as Inner London. This very much included Walworth.

Surrey lost some of its most shady and interesting inner London parts (not, necessarily, to the shame of the people involved in the rest of it) and quite sensibly built a new County Hall in a town that was part of Surrey.


Kingston-upon-Thames, when County Hall was constructed in 1893, was a river resort and retreat, and the kind of town that the wealthiest of railway commuters might be willing to head to London from, whilst living a relatively disease-free rustic life. As such, it symbolised Surrey’s aspirations perfectly.

But then more development happened.

The county of Greater London was created in 1965, reflecting the suburbanisation that the mainstreaming of railways and the Underground had brought to the city, turning former commuter-belt towns into outright suburbs and villages into new towns. In the interim, Kingston had been linked into London with further rail and road-building. So, to nobody’s great surprise, Kingston-upon-Thames became part of Greater London in the 1965 review.

If you were sensible, you might think that Surrey would run another 1893 attempt, and shift its County Hall to somewhere that was, well, in it. But you’d be wrong.

Surrey has ancient rivalries, of the sort that normally only manifest themselves in football teams. Its two most prominent settlements are Guildford and Woking. The former is ancient and fancy; the latter is wealthy and diverse and more directly integrated into London. They hate each other at least as much as Melbourne and Sydney. Meanwhile, the people in the country towns that make up the south of the county hate Guildford and Woking.

For the last 60 years, politicians have been making half-arsed attempts to solve this problem. In 2003, the council managed to agree on an attempt to build a new County Hall in Woking, but the money ran out. As of 2017, MPs for small towns still try to play on regional patriotism to sort out enormous absurd pork barrels, and get shot right down again.

And the strangest thing is, nobody particularly cares. It’s become completely normal for the people of Surrey over the last 50 years to accept the fact that their capital is in a different place from their actual county, to the point where they aren’t even interested.

I can’t help but think of another question here: if habituation is that easy, how on earth did we fail to make the case for the EU?

 
 
 
 

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.