"The end of the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway meant the end of northern economic independence"

A map of the L&YR's network, on display at Manchester's Victoria station. Image: Mike Peel/Wikimedia Commons.

In this brief history, Dr Stephen Caunce describes how a railway company helped to make England's industrial north – and how its end presaged the region's economic decline.

The development of the internal transportation network within and between England's four main northern conurbations is, as usual, distinctive and misunderstood.

The mosaic map created by the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway Company (L&YR), and on display in various stations, shows only a part of the overall system – but it does indicate its unfocussed, decentralised character. Uniquely among major English companies, this company never built a line to London. Adapting this system to modern needs has rarely worked out well over the last century, culminating in the never-ending west coast line upgrade saga, and its strange and controversial child, High Speed 2 (HS2).

The L&YR is especially interesting as the only powerful and long-lasting organisation which emerged spontaneously to co-ordinate activity across these conurbation boundaries. Its profits reflected regional economic performance, and it responded accordingly, always paying a dividend, and often a very healthy one.

Incorporated in 1847, the L&YR united several small existing companies. Significantly, its core was the Manchester & Leeds Railway Company, formed in 1839, and not the Liverpool & Manchester (1830). It flourished for over 70 years, until 1921, when parliament forcibly grouped most lines into four huge new entities. The western routes mostly went to the London, Midland & Scottish; the rest to the London & North Eastern. The usual guiding logic of regionality and operational efficiency was set aside. The London routes to the north, provided by other companies, were assumed to have primacy.

The end of the LY&R had both a symbolic and practical significance. It meant the end of northern economic independence, and the region’s re-orientation towards becoming a London satellite zone, a move which the Thatcher government pretty much completed. Both the plan for HS2, and the cancellation of the Manchester to Leeds electrification, seem to grow entirely from that vision.

A degree of duplication

Thus it was that, in the 20th century, the L&YR was deemed to have got its fundamental orientation wrong. Yet before 1850 it had played a crucial role, in turning a set of disconnected, short and clumsily constructed lines that mostly carried minerals, into a national network which carried almost all traffic (except the purely local).

The Pennine industrial economy had always adapted cheap and proven solutions to local needs: before the 1820s, costly experimentation had been limited to just two long canal tunnels under the central summits. Even with railways, the region actually borrowed existing technology, and developed it only where the overloading of current communications systems was severely constricting local business performance.

Some lines were literally initiated as extended sidings to particular industrial units

Rosy and justified prospects of profits unlocked ample local finance; routes were planned piecemeal by local entrepreneurs to serve particular needs, rarely citing any wider logic. The goal was a freight network linking a multitude of scattered production sites to Liverpool and Hull, and it produced probably the most complex, unfocussed system ever built. The network had a high degree of duplication of even minor routes; some lines were literally initiated as extended sidings to particular industrial units.

In his 1981 book Trans-Pennine Heritage: Hills, People and Transport, Keith Parry characterised the network as “hard-working, intensively-developed, a little grimy, innovative, yet allowing itself few indulgences and above-all commercially clear-headed to the point of boredom”. Its trademark route ran from Leeds via Bradford and Halifax over to Burnley, Accrington, Blackburn and Preston. Extensive sections had quadruple track, and substantial goods yards existed every few miles.  

Photographs of L&YR operations are rare and unglamorous, for “of all the major British railway companies, [it] was at once the most complex and least colourful”. The most commonly seen picture is of a “heavy coal train near Mytholmroyd”.

Prodigious quantities of relatively short-haul freight were hauled over an intricate system full of junctions, where no two stations were much more than five miles apart. The L&YR’s 1,650 plain black locomotives formed a higher total per mile than any other British company, making it the most intensively worked.

Even by the1850s, an unusual 60 per cent of wagons were iron framed; by 1900 it was building specialised, braked wagons for delicate cargoes, including cattle, as well as unusually large ones for continental freight coming in via Goole. The company was then intensely proud that it could collect yarn from a spinning mill, transport it across Lancashire for weaving, and deliver the finished cloth to a Manchester merchant, all in one day.

Over1,900 passenger services developed around this freight focus, often to increase revenue on lines which existed primarily to convey coal and manufactured goods. Its longest regular non-stop run was from Manchester to Wakefield, less than 50 miles. However, where demand was high it was taken seriously. “Slip” carriages – individual cars, uncoupled from express trains while in motion, to deliver passengers to minor stations – ran from 1889, and mill owners and other wealthy commuters could use luxurious club cars on some lines.  In 1904 it was the first mainline railway to start electrification, between Liverpool and Southport; the Manchester lines followed.   

The company's logo. Image: David Ingham/Wikimedia Commons.

The L&YR also ran steamship services from Liverpool to Drogheda, and Hull to Zeebrugge, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Copenhagen, and Hamburg. With 28 ships in 1914 it was the biggest shipowner among British railway companies; five more ships linked Fleetwood to Belfast and Derry in a joint operation with the LNWR.

The L&YR had then become the heart of a very integrated, intense and internationalised transport operation, filled out within the region by a host of short, private “mineral” lines and freight tramways, often narrow gauge and flimsily constructed. The corporations of towns of 50,000 people or above all also developed street tramways for passengers; smaller towns often got a service provided by bigger neighbours.

Some local passenger services outside the cities ceased running, but the resulting interurban service in industrial Lancashire was possibly the densest in the world. Even canals, by then mostly railway-owned, still moved bulky, low value freight within an extremely intricate “transportscape”. The problem for the future was the neglect of trunk roads and the lack of impetus to even consider underground railways except beneath the Mersey.

Sadly, railway grouping came just as unprecedented economic challenges developed. The LMS became the world's largest transport organisation; the largest commercial undertaking in the British Empire; the largest joint stock organisation in the world; and the United Kingdom's second largest employer, after the Post Office. It might seem to have offered the possibility of more rational planning.

But the region was just a part of its remit. Transpennine connections lost their significance, and an obsession developed instead with glamorous expresses linking London to Scotland, for no very obvious economic reason. One historian noted that, “the LMS did little to develop the former L&YR routes”; the same was true of the LNER in Yorkshire. Ironically, parliament had earlier twice refused to sanction such a merger, in 1853 and 1871.

The industrial Pennines thus emerged from the inter-war depression with transport links that were inappropriate and increasingly inadequate, probably for the first time in its history. The Beeching cuts of the 1960s came when the need for local rail services was heading rapidly downwards: they were severe, both in terms of pruning the network and in killing off rail-related industrial activity, which had been immensely important. We are living with the consequences of all this today.

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.

Alternatively, you can read his economic history of the region on CityMetric, beginning here.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.