Here’s how to fix the Leeds railway network

Leeds railway station. Image: Tejvan Pettinger/Flickr/creative commons.

Leeds has a problem with public transport. The obvious issue is absence of a tramway: years of lobbying for trams has failed and Westminster has recently blocked a trolley bus scheme.

But there is another pressing transport issue in Leeds: its railway station. Unlike most other large cities, Leeds only has the one station into which all its trains and passengers funnel every day. It’s desperate for more capacity to run more trains.

And the pressure on that station is going to get much worse when HS2 arrives. Passengers in Wakefield, Bradford, Halifax, Castleford or Pontefract currently don't need to go to Leeds to get to London: they either have a direct train or they change at Wakefield. When HS2 opens with its very fast link to London, though, changing at Leeds will become attractive, even at the expense of the convenience of a direct train.

The first option which should be investigated is a second station, something like Manchester's Oxford Road. A site east of the station between Leeds Minster and the bus station would go some way to relieve the pressure. For this to be effective, though, a significant number of trains would have to call there.

This brings me to the fundamental problem with Leeds railway station: the lines that serve it are lopsided. Six tracks enter the station's west side, yet only two tracks leave on the east: in effect, two thirds of the trains arriving at the station have to terminate there.

Terminating a train in Leeds isn't in itself a bad thing, but you can run a lot more trains when they only stop there for two minutes and then head off in the same direction they were already going – you know, like most trains, tubes, trams and buses do at most stations and stops. The key to sorting out Leeds is to rebalance the station to enable as many trains as possible run through the station rather than terminating.

A simplified map of the Leeds railway network. Some little used lines are omitted for clarity.

Looking in detail at the trains that arrive in Leeds from the east, they come on a line from Hull, via Selby, and a line from York (trains form Newcastle, Middlesbrough and Scarborough). These two lines meet at Micklefield Junction and run from there to Leeds on a two track railway. Eight trains per hour (8tph) come from the east.

Arriving at Leeds from the west there are as follows.

  • The Harrogate Line – 2tph;
  • The Leeds North Western (Ilkley, Skipton, Bradford, Carlisle, Morecambe) – 7tph;
  • Calder Valley Line (Bradford, Manchester Victoria, Blackpool) – 4tph;
  • North Trans Pennine (Huddersfield, Manchester Piccadilly, Liverpool) – 7tph;
  • East Coast Mainline (London, Birmingham, Doncaster) – 5tph;
  • Castleford Line (Nottingham, Sheffield) – 4tph;

Which looks like this:

An infographic showing the west-east imbalance of trains arriving at Leeds.

So: 29 trains per hour approach Leeds form the west. Only 8 continue eastwards. That leaves Leeds with 21 terminating trains an hour, off peak!

The simple solution is to run more of those westside trains through the station. But where would you run them to? There are already 6tph to York: I suppose you could add another, and the same for Hull, but that doesn't help much.


That second station in the city, would allow some services to terminate there or run through it to a new Park and Ride station adjacent to the M1. Doing that, you could get to 12tph on the east side, but you’d still have 29 on the west. So: to make a significant difference some of those trains that arrive at Leeds from the west need to approach from the east.

Obviously you can't move a city to a more convenient location, but it turns out that you don't have to. Look at a map, and you’ll find that many of the towns and cities whose trains arrive in Leeds from the west are actually east of the city. London is east of Leeds, by about 60 miles. In fact, Castleford, Wakefield, Nottingham and Sheffield are all east of Leeds – yet their trains past from east to west, south of Leeds to enter the station.

This is a big cause of the imbalance. Route these services in from the east and the problem is solved. Here’s how.

London First

Rerouting London trains is the easy bit – so easy, that until recently it used to happen, albeit only one train a day.

The East Coast Mainline from London to Scotland passes to the east, but London to Leeds trains leave the mainline at Doncaster and head west. Continue those trains north of Doncaster to Hambleton Junction and run them onto the line from Hull to Leeds and they would approach from the east.

Routing trains this way, rather than via Wakefield, and you get a bonus because it's a higher speed line: more capacity and its quicker. Win win.

Having reached Leeds from the east trains would continue on westward to Bradford or Harrogate. Such a route is desperately needed by Bradford, and way beyond Harrogate council’s wildest dreams. The key here is for the London trains to replace a current Leeds-Bradford or Leeds-Harrogate service, increasing the number of coaches without taking up track capacity.

The proposed London route is in red, the current route is in blue.

If the two London trains per hour could switch from west to east, the imbalance would become 27tph-10tph.

The London trains cross to the east.

Progress.

New Classy Route

That was easy – Castleford is trickier, because it requires building new railway.

The Cass line runs east-west through South Leeds, before taking a handbrake turn into the station. Well, it should do: more accurately, the train takes a handbrake turn and then parks outside the station for five minutes waiting for platform and you miss your connection to York, for f-

Sorry, where was I? Oh, South Leeds. What is required is a couple of miles of new railway line in south east Leeds. A link between Stourton and Neville Hill through what is mainly post industrial wasteland would enable Castleford trains to approach Leeds from the east. The service could continue to terminate at Leeds or run on to Bradford Foster Square and terminate there. Once again, the result is a shorter and quicker route into Leeds, another win-win.

Along with the local trains that run via Castleford, regional trains from Nottingham and Sheffield enter Leeds on this line. They would also benefit from switching to this route and continuing on to Bradford Interchange.

 

Four trains would switch from west to east, making the score 23tph-14tph.

With a new East Leeds Link line in place, a route between York and Leeds via Castleford would be possible. The hourly Blackpool North to York service could be routed this way. Between York and Leeds and this is a stopping service, which eats up capacity between the Micklefield Junction and York. Route this Blackpool service via Castleford and you get another big win: a direct train each hour from Castleford to York would link up the cheap homes in Castleford and Sherburn to the growing economy of York and its overheated housing market.

The proposed East Leeds Link line in red. Possible new route from York using freight lines in grey.

Is that enough?

Rebalancing the lines in this way will provide Leeds with the capacity needed for the arrival of HS2. If further capacity was required, then it would be worth investigating the reopening of the Harrogate to Leeds line via Wetherby. This would join the Hull to Leeds line at Crossgates.

However, doubling the number of trains approaching Leeds from the east will mean that two track line reaches maximum capacity. Quadrupling the line from Neville Hill to Leeds will almost certainly be required.

Extending that four tracking all the way to Micklefield Junction would be a very sensible investment. This is actually easier than you would think, because a forward thinker in the first half of 19th century decided that a four track railway will be needed one day. He stipulated that all bridges over the railway between Leeds and Selby must give clearance for four tracks.

I propose that the new tracks are built on the north side of the current two. These should be built as the fast lines without platforms at the intermediate stations. In effect this would be the eastern leg of HS3, creating a true intercity route (125mph) between Leeds and York.

Oh yeah, it goes without saying, this route needs to be electrified through to York and Selby.

 

At some point the twin track from Leeds to Mickleflied (in blue) will need to be quadrupled.

Will it happen?

Rail investment in Yorkshire, the Humber and the North East has been non-existent for the last decade and a half – so I don't hold out much hope for any projects like the ones I've set out.

That said, electrification of the Leeds to York and Selby lines should be a top priority. It is the easy bit of the Transpennine Electrification Project and it will be put to use straightaway by TransPennine’s new bi-mode trains and Northern’s new electrics.

The last five years have seen significant improvements in the North West with electrification, capacity improvements and re-signalling. East of the Pennines all we have received are three small stations on the outskirts of Bradford and the addition of a new entrance at Leeds station.

It's time for huge investment around Leeds to make rail a viable option for the city region. What I’ve proposed here is only the start.

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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.