Here’s everything we learned from this map of British Rail’s InterCity services, c1981

An InterCity 125 leaves London Kings Cross for Edinburgh in 1978. Image: Getty.

Between 1948 and 1997, Britain’s railways were an arm of the British state, for much of that time trading – a lot of thought went into this, one assumes – under the brand name British Rail.

But that wasn’t the only name to be found on the network during the era of nationalisation. Not all railways were created equal: the most prestigious, longer distance and – to generalise wildly – more profitable routes were branded as “InterCity” services. From 1976 onwards, these routes even had their own special trains, the InterCity 125, whose name tells you both a) which route they were used on and b) how fast they might go on a good day if you were lucky.

I vaguely remember all this from my childhood. What I didn’t remember is that there was a map. But here, thanks to the Independent’s Jon Stone, is the 1981 vintage:

Some observations.

This is clearly designed for the London market

The capital is very clearly at the centre of the network, despite definitely not being at the centre of the country. The train times shown are the fastest journeys to London. The headline (“The Inter-City Overground”), the entire style of the map, seem intended to bring to mind the tube map.

It’d be easy to conclude from this that InterCity meant “between London and other cities”. That’s not quite true – although the rail network was centred on London, especially after the early 1960s Beeching axe, there were “Cross Country” InterCity services which bypassed the capital altogether.

Nonetheless, this particularly map was clearly aimed at people trying to get either to or from London:

It’s a strange definition of InterCity

Does a train from London to Harwich really belong in the same box as one to Scoland? Okay, if you’re going to Harwich you’re probably getting a boat, so on balance the journey counts as long distance, but all the same, the train will only take you to Essex.

And don’t get me started on Brighton. That’s barely outside London at all. Surely these are just commuter services?

While we’re at it:

What’s going on with that white line to Dover?

Is it coloured differently to show how important it is? Or because it isn’t an InterCity service at all, but since, pre-Channel Tunnel, it’s the route you’d take to the continent, it seems worth highlighting anyway? In which case why did Harwich get to be InterCity when Dover didn’t?

Maybe it’s just there because once you’ve decided to centre your map on London you don’t want to end up with a strange unsightly gap in the bottom right hand corner. Who knows.

Anyway, more important things:

A bunch of cities lost direct trains to London when privatisation happened

There was much excitement in Shropshire in 2014: that December, it finally lost its status as the only county in England without a direct rail link to the capital, when Virgin began running trains from Shrewsbury to London. (Edit to add: On Twitter, it’s been pointed out to me that a previous operator, the Wrexham & Shropshire, had run from 2008-11.)

The odd thing is, though, in 1981, this train already existed. It’s just that it got canned when British Rail did, forcing proud Salopians to change at Birmingham for nigh on 20 years.

It’s a similar story with several other places. There are direct trains from London to Bradford these days – but they’re indirect and pootling and take an hour more than they did in 1981, so generally speaking you’re better off changing at Leeds. As for Middlesbrough there are still no direct trains to London – although Virgin plan to start running them in 2020.

Why didn’t these routes survive privatisation? One possible reason is that they simply weren’t profitable, so nobody wanted to run them. (Great.) But there is another, less cynical possibility, which we’ll come to below.

Some of the journey times have got longer too

One of the most common responses when Jon tweeted the map was along the lines of, “Wow, my train has actually got slower.”

And it’s true, it’s depressingly easy to find examples. The InterCity map gives a 22 minute journey time from London to Reading. The fastest today seems to be 25, and most trains take around 40. For London to Bristol it gives a journey time of 1hr25: the fastest now seems to be 1hr37, the average around 1hr52.

So – things have got worse, right?

Well, maybe. But there are two mitigating factors to consider, courtesy of the former Financial Times transport correspondent Robert Wright:

To put it another way: services may be slightly slower now, but there are more of them, and they serve more stations. That probably, on balance, makes for a more useful rail network.

This might explain the end of some direct services, too. Okay, so there are no direct services from Middlesbrough to London. But there are very frequent services from Middlesbrough to Darlington, and from Darlington to London, and while changing is a pain in the bum, this might on balance work out quicker than waiting for the one direct train a day.

It takes bloody ages to get to Inverness

I know it’s a long way, but 10hr44 from London? Really? Surely it must be faster today?

It is, as it happens. You can now do it under 9 hours. Luxury.

A late 1980s TV advert for InterCity services.

This map dates from around 1981. In 1986, British Rail underwent a process known as “sectorisation”, which basically meant dividing it into three.

One was InterCity. Another was Network SouthEast, the London commuter zone (although this also included a couple of services previously branded as InterCity). Everything else got dumped into a third box, labelled Regional Railways.

I started this little tour by saying that, despite appearances, the InterCity network was not entirely about London. Despite my protests, however, those who ran the railway network as a whole clearly felt that most of it was.

I’m not really going anywhere with this. It just depresses me a bit, that’s all.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.