HS2 would be the largest single infrastructure investment aimed at northern England for decades – and yet, hardly any of its length will be in the north. Can halving passenger journey times between central London and central Manchester really transform a whole region? Even with branches added to the line?
One city that could one day be linked to the new route will be Preston. The Lancashire city has long been a focus of routes running in all directions, through an unusual range of differing landscapes and economic zones. That provides us with an opportunity to examine what difference links to London have previously made – and to show how varied and context-dependent the impact railways had on the north really was.
The erstwhile cotton and engineering town – a city since 2002 – sits at the north-western corner of Lancashire's main industrial area, and in the 1960s was considered one of Lancashire's most thriving areas. Its council currently looks after 135,000 inhabitants; its “Travel To Work Area” officially includes 400,000.
The obvious thing to compare HS2 with is the existing West Coast Main Line to London. On that line, Preston forms a regional interchange comparable to Crewe: almost every train stops here, though few mainline services start or finish.
But being only two and a quarter hours from Euston has not discernibly buffered its economy: manufacturing has almost vanished, and only British Aerospace survives to provide any substantial high-tech aspect.
Northwards from the city, the conventional twin track line rushes trains through a zone that remains thinly populated and largely rural. The line’s smaller stations have all closed, so feeder services are very limited. The town stations that are still open again show no benefit: even Lancaster had only a minor history of manufacturing, now all gone, and it was never oriented towards the metropolis.
Southwards, the line runs along the industrial region's western edge, through what was the Lancashire coalfield, and there are sections with four tracks. Here it is integrated thoroughly into a dense local network, and main-line services have to serve as local stopping trains, too.
The coal traffic paid the basic bills for the UK railway system as a whole
Wigan's economic history has all been about coal and textiles; and while Warrington’s has been more diverse, again the pattern seems entirely regionally-oriented. It would, however, be interesting to quantify the contribution made to the success of Warrington New Town by the non-stop trains which already reach London in under two hours, and to compare that with its excellent motorway links.
Running off the main line, the link to Manchester via Bolton and the coalfield traverses a mass of small branches, sidings and private mineral lines, which hindered fast passenger services.
Rail was vital to this area, but not in any way comparable to HS2: In years past, the coal traffic was genuinely a higher commercial priority, since it paid the basic bills for the UK railway system as a whole. Recent electrification is an indicator that links between Manchester and Preston are a new priority – but these will only improve London links slightly.
The railways around Preston in 1913. Image: Railway Clearing House.
From east to west
Preston's other, largely unrecognised, main line runs from Hull and Scarborough to Leeds, then through a tight-knit sequence of northern manufacturing towns, and onwards to Blackpool. For the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway Company this was their top investment priority, and long stretches had four tracks despite the difficult terrain. Goods yards flourished at almost every station, some of them vast.
All these have disappeared. And in Preston, the many sidings beside the present station have been replaced by a modern shopping mall, a symbol of local economic change. Freightliner services frequently pass through Preston without stopping. When the Channel Tunnel opened, northern industry identified direct freight access as a priority – but HS2 is not about that.
This main line was clearly crucial in linking a naturally isolated area to ports as manufacturing grew. Within Lancashire it created Accrington almost from nothing, and was vital to the continuing growth of Burnley and Blackburn. Preston also gained.
Few passengers, however, used it regularly, especially within Lancashire: people generally preferred to live as close as possible to their work, and shopping facilities in each large town replicated each other.
Strangely, this line continues to convey bitumen to Preston
An associated single-track freight spur is worth a comment. From 1892, it linked the station to the artificially created Preston Dock, a hugely expensive and controversial initiative by Preston Council, two years before the Manchester Ship Canal and its pioneering Trafford Park industrial estate opened. Intended to serve east Lancashire manufacturing towns, the dock always struggled financially and closed in 1981.
However, it did attract the tramcar manufacturer Dick, Kerr & Co., which was the ancestor of the present British Aerospace facility. Strangely, this line continues to convey bitumen to Preston. The revenue it generates has funded a local heritage railway as a minor tourist attraction based in the redeveloped Preston dockland complex, commemorating small-scale industrial railways. Another sign of the times.
This main line did carry vast crowds through to Blackpool in summer on both scheduled services and excursions, turning it into a national resort. The direct route to the coast had four tracks; another lower-intensity route ran along the river Ribble with many wayside stations, which remain today for a limited commuter use. The market towns of Kirkham and Poulton, which developed a small holiday trade of its own, still have stations on the much-degraded main route. But road access now provides Blackpool's national linkages, and again HS2 has no comparable role.
In crossing the largely rural western Fylde district, these lines offered farmers excellent rail connections to get perishable crops to market; this transformed their activities. (The Scottish main line did far less for the eastern half of the district.) Local pressure created a feeble branch line to nowhere via the market town of Garstang; it closed to passengers in 1930, and to freight traffic two decades later.
Some short excursions
Another apparently rural line still serves West Lancashire south of the Ribble; but it’s mostly one track, a measure of its scale can be gauged from the fact that Wikipedia characterises it as “a long siding”. One single one-carriage train is enough to carry what local and commuter traffic there is.
The route meanders unhurriedly through intensive but attractive farmland to the market town of Ormskirk, where passengers change onto electrified commuter trains for Liverpool. When this line was built, however, it was a major direct freight route to Liverpool and its docks. Clearly no local growth ensued. A parallel line ran nearer to the coast to serve Southport, but generated only a fraction of the Blackpool traffic. That closed in 1964.
Finally, a short line to nearby quarries in Longridge opened in 1836 using horse traction. It grew into a short conventional local line, with grandiose but unrealised pretentions to become a trans-pennine route linking the Fylde holiday resorts to Yorkshire. Passenger services ceased in 1937, and freight in 1967.
In 2010 a light rail manufacturer, Trampower UK, wanted to reopen it for vehicle testing, and then to develop it as a commuter tram line powered by renewable energy sources. The new line was to link the city centre to junction 31 of the M6. But applications for a £9m government grant failed; and with the downturn in the regional economy the scheme has been abandoned.
End of the line
Despite Preston's many platforms, commuter traffic is generally slight, and only two local stations serve the built-up area. “Rush hours” are short and not hectic, for cars and buses are typically better suited to the short journeys most people take. Even today, Wigan and Bolton residents would rarely think of Preston as a likely place to work.
Every line around Preston had different origins, different aims, and a different and changing impact on the area it passed through. Some of them simply wasted investment. Over time, their roles changed steadily, unpredictably, and sometimes dramatically; rehabilitating this heritage of local rail to suit modern needs is not easy.
But one thing is clear: direct links to London were among the least important aspect of the role rail played in the development of the Preston area.
Manchester is a much bigger city than Preston, with a more elaborate and modernised economy. But the question remains: why would a single link to central London, which will not see trains running for nearly two decades, possibly be expected to re-energise the whole north? Is it really a sound plan to give it almost all the currently available new funding for transport investment?
Dr Stephen Caunce was formerly a senior lecturer in history at the University of Central Lancashire. He has published a range of books on oral history and the north of England. You can buy them here.