Yesterday’s chaos on the British Railways makes the strongest case yet for HS2

The lesser spotted Virgin train. Image: Getty.

Yesterday lunchtime, a cable broke in Wembley, north west London. That caused the signals to fail on the West Coast Main Line (WCML), and meant that, for two hours yesterday afternoon, trains could not travel between Euston and Watford Junction.

The resulting delays and cancellations didn’t just affect passengers, but also meant that dozens of trains and train crews weren’t were they were supposed to be at the time they were supposed to be there. That in turn meant more delays, cancellations, horrific overcrowding, the abandonment of all seat reservations, the rapid collapse of civilisation, and the passengers on the 15:45 to Woverhampton deciding to re-enact the last few chapters of Lord of the Flies. And all because a cable broke. It wasn’t a good day.

To make matters worse, yesterday was also the final day of the Labour party conference in Liverpool, two hours from London along this very line. That meant that large chunks of Britain’s government and media classes were trying to make their way home on the affected route.

And so, the problems got a lot more attention than they probably would otherwise. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn himself tweeted, "Couldn’t make this up. We need public ownership of our railways", because it was a great excuse to remind everyone of a popular policy pledge, and you would, wouldn’t you?


Actually, though, this argument didn’t really stack up: the cause of the problems lay in infrastructure, not operations, and infrastructure already is in the hands of the publicly-owned Network Rail. If the railways had been completely nationalised last week, that cable still would have broken, and the chaos would have unfolded exactly the same way.

So: sorry, Jeremy, but yesterday’s mess does not actually make the case for nationalisation after all.

It does, however, make a strong case for another major rail policy of our era: High Speed 2.

One of the reasons a cable snapping in Wembley could cause as much chaos as it did is because the West Coast Main Line is one of the busiest railway routes in Europe. It links London with both candidates for the title “Britain’s second city”, Birmingham and Manchester; as well as two of the other big metropolitan areas, Glasgow and Liverpool; and other significant cities including Milton Keynes, Coventry, Wolverhampton, Preston and Stoke-on-Trent. That’s without even getting into the fact its branches double as major commuter routes in several of those places, and it’s also a major freight route.

So: it’s a pretty important route. If you were designing a railway network for resilience, you probably wouldn’t use the same line to link a country’s capital to its second, third, fifth and tenth largest metropolitan areas. It’s asking for trouble.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

HS2 of course will also serve a number of these same cities, as well as several more (Nottingham, Sheffield, Leeds). But there’s a key difference: if HS2 existed, there’d be more than one major rail route connecting London and most of the major British cities. If that cable broke at Wembley, there’d still be a working railway line between Manchester and London. Hell, that’d be true if a cable broke on HS2, too: it’d make it a hell of a lot harder for one minor infrastructure failure to paralyse the country.

Most of the attempt to sell HS2 to a sceptical public have focused on speed, on the grounds that high-speed trains are sexy. But this hasn’t really taken, because "20 minutes off the journey time from London to Birmingham!" really doesn’t sound like that big a deal. A more convincing argument is the one about capacity: it says that the WCML is pretty much full, and so these routes need both more train paths and more seats.

For me, though, the most compelling case is the one about resilience: the argument that says that things will inevitably break, so we should have back-up systems. That is why we should build HS2: to make us less dependent on a single, ageing rail-route. A cable snapping in north London should not be enough to paralyse a country.

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

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.