From Manchester to Marseille: What can the promise of high speed rail do to a city?

Manchester's Canal Street and Marseille's old port. Image: Getty.

Alighting at Marseille's Saint-Charles railway station on a balmy August evening, a colleague and I made our way to the head of the grand stone staircase which sweeps leisurely down to street level. As we paused momentarily to appreciate the sprawling city beneath us, I cast my mind back to earlier in the day – 7.15am, in fact – when I had left another major city back in the UK, Manchester, then still shrouded in gloom.

Perhaps more importantly than where we had ended up was the way in which we had arrived: not by some ubiquitous budget airline with tedious transfers and a cosy cabin, but by train – station to station, city centre to city centre. What had started out as a rail journey of stop/start frustration between Manchester and London had ended with an easy saunter through the French countryside aboard one of SNCF's revered Train Grand Vitesse (TGV) services.

Sat in the bar carriage, amid the convivial conversation of my fellow passengers, I soon shrugged off the day’s earlier stresses and gazed contentedly at the speeding scenery, safe in the knowledge that with each passing minute the mercury outside would continue to rise.

The chance to bask in a little Mediterranean sun was just a bonus. The real reason behind my foray south was the compulsion to test a few theories – theories concerning both Manchester and Marseille, arguably the emerging second cities of their respective countries, and the means by which they may soon be connected via a High Speed Rail line.

High Speed Rail is big news in both the UK and France, though for vastly different reasons. The French are more than a little smug about their much vaunted High Speed network, one which has been successfully rolled out across the country over the course of the last 30 years or more.

Here in the UK plans for a similar network have been championed and chastised in equal measure. Much has been made of the government’s plans to build HS2 – but between the attention-grabbing headlines concerning exorbitant costs and environmental ruin, how much do the public really know? Or perhaps of greater importance, do they even care?

I believe that yes, they do, and consequently set out on a series of consecutive rail journeys through the two countries with the aim of meeting some of them. Supported by The Academy of Urbanism Young Urbanists Small Grants Scheme, my travels took me up to Manchester and Liverpool here in the UK, and then down to Marseille and Toulon in the South of France.

I wanted answers to three very specific questions: How good is the connectivity between different modes of transport along the route? What is the level of interdependence between rail infrastructure and city regions? And can high speed rail help to devolve power from a country’s capital and second city?

Manchester to London

Upon alighting at Manchester Piccadilly I threaded my way north to the site earmarked for a state of the art station concourse, set to house four new High Speed tracks. Taking a moment to imagine the hub of activity surrounding the proposed public plaza which will play host to a whole spectrum of civic life, I found myself thinking of chancellor George Osborne’s flagship Northern Powerhouse project: an initiative which would see Manchester – in effect, this very spot – at the heart of a new mega-conurbation to include nearby Liverpool, Sheffield, Leeds and York.

To supporters of HS2 the construction of the new rail line and the growth of the North are seen as not only symbolic,  but perhaps even symbiotic – a straightforward relationship of cause and effect. A couple of local contacts showed me around the city centre, before sitting down to discuss the government’s designs for Manchester and the potential effects its new role as the UK’s official second city may bring.

Manchester's Metrolink. The trams have become a symbol of the city. Image: Getty.

Joe Ravetz and Gabi Schliwa, a senior lecturer and a PhD student at Manchester University's School of Environment, are both wary of the supposed implications any perceived new status may bring. “Far from being a second city behind London we really believe that Manchester operates in a completely separate sphere. It's not about North and South but Manchester as a place and a city in it's own right,” argued Ravetz.

The pair further identified spending cuts, lack of accountability and “blame game” tactics as contributing to the poor state of the North's much maligned rail network. “Yes, HS2 could work to increase opportunities for Northern Cities,” Ravetz told me. “But there remains a stronger need to make the north work as a cohesive entity first.”

On the train the following morning, I leafed through the locally-produced One North report – a manifesto setting out an integrated transport strategy in response to the Chancellors call to arms. What it was local people really wanted when it came to improving their transport links, I wondered?

As we crawled back to London, owing to disruption on the track somewhere ahead of us, I asked the retired Mancunian couple sat across the aisle from me what they wanted. Refreshingly, to them it wasn't a case of either yes or no for HSR but rather: what next?

People are asking the wrong questions, they told me. “Rather than a High Speed line being used to devolve power to the north it’s the problem itself which should be devolved. Why can't we harness the minds of our great local science and engineering schools to develop the next generation of rail travel?”

Their contention that High Speed Rail is in fact old technology was one with their belief that devolving the issue of next generation rail travel to the north as an engineering problem would serve to provide the region with a sense of genuine ownership over its future – and subsequently work to rebalance the disparity of power between North and South.

London to Marseille

After a delayed journey from Manchester on a claustrophobic Pendolino train, we arrived in the dreary low-lit enclave of Euston station. It was a welcome change, then, to transfer onto the Eurostar at St Pancras International.

The theatricality of St Pancras station definitely adds to the sense of adventure imparted by a Eurostar journey. The international trains’ décor is becoming a little tired, and space comes at a premium. But I found that, when faced with the prospect of travelling to the continent via other means, some passengers were more than willing to pay the extra cost to travel in comfort from city centre to city centre.

A Eurostar train emerges from the Channel Tunnel. Image: Getty.

One such, a middle aged lady from London, was travelling onto Nice to visit family, a trip she takes bi-monthly. She told me she prefers the train because of her aversion to flying, and the greater flexibility and comfort afforded by the train.

Questioned on her views about whether HSR could help devolve power away from a city's capital, she told me that she believed it could – but only if that process was carefully regulated. “For me, London is and will always be the UK's main city, and I really believe it is important that it continues to receive preference over the others.”

This view isn’t uncommon in the south of England, where some feel more closely aligned with their European counterparts than they do with their fellow compatriots just a couple hours north. I wondered if those in France felt the same way, given the country’s better connectivity and the decentralisation of power that the TGV had allegedly brought.

In Paris, I transferred from the Gare du Nord to the Gare de Lyon for the Marseille-bound TGV. The first thing that strikes you about the Paris-Marseille train is the room afforded by its double deck design. The carriage’s public areas – usually considered a mere afterthought – are commodious, with not only the ubiquitous luggage rack but small banquet style sofas and generous staircases upon which some passengers happily while away the hours chatting or reading. The seating too, even in standard class, is plush and well laid out – a far cry from the thinly padded seats and creaking fold-up tables of their UK counterparts.

The bar carriage, too, is a noticeable improvement from not only UK trains, but also the Eurostar. A young professional travelling from Paris to Cannes for the weekend helped to shed more light on the appeal of the French HSR network. For him, the major benefit of the TVG is the opportunity it gives him to escape the city and be in the south of France in just over 3 hours. The regularity of the service is another big plus for passengers, justifying their belief that the service is designed to work around them.

One note of contention, however, was the incremental price rises which are hitting customers who use these services on a regular basis. Despite this, the consensus among most passengers was that travelling via TGV was the only way of making the trip south. But some local trains are a different matter: after arriving at Marseille St Charles, our southbound companion was facing a thirty minute wait and snail-like onward connection along the French coast.

Two days in Provence

In Marseille we met Emmy Arts, the head of international relations at the prestigious Ecole Centrale de Marseille. She told me that, although the city was justified in winning the coveted European Capital of Culture in 2013, it is still experiencing the growing pains associated with its rapid ascendancy.

Much like the contacts in Manchester I had spoken to the day before, she believed that Marseille has always had its own identity – something compounded by its role as a largely unloved salt-of-the-earth place, for years considered culturally backward in comparison to both Paris and Lyon. “The locals love to joke that Marseille faces the sea, turning its back on the rest of France,” she said. Despite being loud, unruly and – by European standards – dirty, it has a real dynamism. It reminds me of Manchester – both cities are more than content with doing their own thing.

Marseille's old port. Image: Getty.

The arrival of High Speed Rail has been credited with bringing investment and opportunity to the city, with Marseille's revival acknowledged in the shape of the aforementioned City of Culture gong. In the intervening two years however, things have changed. Despite increased growth and relative political stability, a lack of continued investment has left its ugly mark.

The following morning we walked along the waterfront of the city's La Joliette district, the defining urban quarter of Marseille’s cultural renaissance. The images depicted on the Photoshopped banners draped across the now deserted street-front block don't quite match the reality: windows are boarded up, and the noticeable lack of human activity soon becomes disconcerting.

Several high profile international events had been earmarked for Marseille, its bid boosted by its rising stature and good international rail links. But they’d fallen through due to the city's inability to improve its local transport links.

In stark contrast, a fellow recipient of the City of Culture award (Liverpool, 2008), which I had visited along with Manchester had impressed me with its integrated intercity transport networks, sustained investment and the realisation of a shared vision by its public figures and policymakers.

I’d taken an earlier trip to Liverpool from Manchester, in order to gain a feel of how nearby cities relate to their bigger neighbours. For the same reason, that afternoon, we travelled an hour east along the coast to Toulon, an important naval city and confirmed recipient of a new High Speed Rail connection.

Asking locals if they were aware of this new link, and more importantly what it could mean to them, we spoke with a young family dependent on the train for day trips to nearby cities. “Getting the kids ready, taking the slow train – it means that by the time we arrive we are often limited to what we can do,” they told me. “A faster and more frequent service would be great for us.”

Toulon. Image: Getty.

As with those who we had spoken to on the cross-country trip, we found that cost is never far from people’s minds: constructing a brand new line that local people could not afford to use certainly wouldn't help sustain the trust built between SNCF and its customers.

In fact, it’s only due to the development of a High Speed Rail network all those years ago that SNCF now finds itself in a position to develop the same technology along regional routes, and offer the option of a much improved service. The French story shows that, properly managed, High Speed Rail can begin to work directly in the interests of local communities.

Lessons learnt

The four day trip had helped answer a few of my questions – but it had also served to raise several more.

On the question of connectivity, I had at times been frustrated by local transport. On the whole, though, I had found it acceptable, despite the way it appreciably slowed down onward journey times in certain cases. Having spoken to those in both Manchester and Marseille who use these networks every day, I found that they recognised the benefits that High Speed Rail could bring – but that for it was direct investment in local transport infrastructure which would have the biggest impact on their quality of life. 

It was a similarly nuanced picture when it came to the issue of rail infrastructure and city regions. Establishing stronger ties with local cities would be a big plus for those residing in both the north of England and the south of France – but the residents of both Manchester and Marseille made clear it should not come at the expense of a distillation of a city’s identity.

That this sentiment should remain so strong even now is testament to the competitive mindset that was bred between neighbouring cities with the onset of the industrial revolution all those years ago. But what was then undoubtedly a catalyst in advancing knowledge and production may now serve to quell both progress and cooperation. Cost again was an issue people cited as critical: yes, they favoured greater integration, but not if it meant further local cuts.

One of SNCF's double decker TGV trains. Image: Getty.

Finally, people do recognise the need for devolution – but the practical parameters and tangible outputs of it remain largely undefined. Those residing in both Manchester and Marseille – the unofficial “Second Cities” of their respective countries – appear ambivalent about this status. The chancellor wants a Northern Powerhouse to enable the North and South to contribute more equally to the country’s economic growth – but what does this mean in reality?

In Manchester, there’s a perception that the sweeping and sustained local cuts of the last parliament caused widespread havoc. This sits uncomfortably with the government’s new found enthusiasm for shaping the north to the vision of what many consider to be a London-centric political class.

I believe that this may explain the reluctance of people en masse to embrace High Speed Rail. Considered on its own merits, it still remains a critical investment – but only if it is able to be developed and co-exist alongside visionary, collaborative, and above all, responsible policymaking.

As in France, an established High Speed Network would in time create the added impetus for improving local transport networks. If High Speed Rail is built and measures for local infrastructure are not implemented, much of the value that a High Speed network can bring would be lost. And while it cannot be denied that local rail infrastructure in the north of England desperately needs overhauling, only a project like High Speed Rail will bring with it the political clout to ensure that this is carried through.

A project of this size and scope will inevitably invite criticism due to the number of people’s lives it will potentially affect. To this end, in addition to the national campaign, it’ll need the rigour, skill and resolution of city leaders to make the case for the project locally. Once people are able to see the value in a city’s civic assets and infrastructure, they are much more willing to fight for its inception and continued investment.

Yes, High Speed Rail is expensive, it will be slow to deliver and it is, above all, political. But this must be used as an advantage. A better performing mainline railway may or may not in time address the issues that the chancellor identifies; we must ensure local transport networks are developed so that everyone can feel the benefits of this important long-term investment.

Charles Critchell is a young urbanist whose project "Second Cities: Manchester to Marseille" has been supported by The Academy of Urbanism's Small Grants Scheme.

A public event about the scheme will be held on Monday November 30th at the Academy's Offices. Click here for more details.  


Why is it acceptable to kill someone? On the mysterious history of Britain’s road death toll

A London speed camera, 2004. Image: Getty.

A decade ago I became fascinated by a graph. This one:

I had been tracking the underlining data for years. The figures were easy to remember. Every year it was 3,500, plus or minus a percentage point or two.

Yet when the 2008 data was released, it had fallen to 2,538. This was 1,000 less than the figure in 2003. I plotted the above graph, and as I said, I became fascinated.

Because this is a really important graph. This is a plot of the number of people killed on Britain’s roads each year.

In Great Britain, collectively, we used to kill nearly 3,500 people on our roads every year. Consistently or, dare I say it, boringly: 3,500 deaths a year, 10 a day. It was accepted, in a, “Well yes it’s bad, but what can you do about it” kind of way. There was no clamour for change. Newspapers weren’t running headlines about the deaths mounting up, as they do with knife crime.

Meanwhile a train crash would be front page news for a week. Take the train that derailed at Hatfield on 17 October 2000, a tragedy in which 4 people died. That led to huge media interest, massive upheaval on the railways, and, ultimately, as the re-nationalisation of Railtrack, whose failings had caused the crash. Yet more than twice as many people will have died on the roads that day. Nothing was written about those deaths. Nothing changed.

In 2000, four people died in train crashes, while 3,409 died on the roads.

Here are those figures again.

1997 – 3,599 people killed on our roads

1998 – 3,422

1999 – 3,423

2000 – 3,409

2001 – 3,450

2002 – 3,431

2003 – 3508

But, in 2004 the figure dropped below 3,400 for the first time, to 3,221. Then in 2005 to 3,201.

2006 – 3,172

2007 – 2,946

Below 3,000! This was change. Significant change: 500 lives a year were not being lost. If you use Britain’s roads, your life may have been one of them.

2008 – 2,538

2009 – 2,222

When the 2010 figures came out I was amazed by the headline figure: 1,857.

That’s still far too high, of course, but it was 1,701 lower than seven years earlier.

This was a major story that deserved a ton of coverage, which it failed to get. Having shown no concern for when we were killing 3,500 people, it wasn’t overly surprising that the fact we were now killing 1,700 fewer wasn’t celebrated.

At any rate, the graph had flat-lined for years, then, in half a dozen years, it halved. Why?

The lack of media coverage resulted in an absence of answers. One commentator, Christian Woolmar, observed that there was no clear answer to why this had happened. But he went on to point out that there had been a fall in the average road speed over this period.

My anticipation of the 2011 figures troubled me, because I expected them to go up. Obviously I didn’t want them to: I desperately want zero deaths on our roads. But something happened in 2010 that I was sure would lead to more fatalities and bring a halt to the falling trend.

I was right. In 2011 we killed 1,901.

Sometimes, being right is shit.

The news was better in 2012. The fatality rate was 1,754. So was the 2011 figure just a blip, due to some significant snowfalls that year? No: the trend was over.

The number of people killed on our roads has remained stuck in the 17 hundreds. 

2013 – 1,713

2014 – 1,775

2015 – 1,732

2016 – 1,792

2017 – 1,793

2018 – 1,782

We have returned to a flatline on the graph – and if anything, I’m more fascinated now than I was before. Road deaths flatlined at 3,500 for years, then fell sharply, then flatlined again at half the rate.

This can’t have happened by accident. I wished I could explain it. I wish we could repeat it. No: I wish the second flatline hadn’t happened, and the fall had continued. If the rate of fall had continued, we’d have reached zero deaths on the road by now. You’d be right to question whether this is possible – but if you can half the number in a few years, why can’t we eradicate them altogether? The railways are an example of what is possible. The last time a passenger died in a train crash on Britain’s railways was in 2007.

It was time to figure out the answers to two questions. Why did the death toll fall? And why did it stop falling?

The obvious reason for a reduction in deaths on the road is the improvement in car safety features. This could create a gradual fall in the death toll as new, safer cars replaced older ones. But I’m not sure it can explain a 40 per cent fall over a 4 year period.

There’s a way to check whether cars on the road became almost twice as safe between 2003 and 2010: you can compare the figures with the rest of the EU. Car safety features are international, and any new feature would have appeared around the same time across the continent.

So I found the EU figures for 2000 to 2017, indexed for 2000 and plotted the graph for multiple countries. It was a busy graph. For clarity the following graph only includes Britain, Germany, France, Spain and Italy along with a straight line drop for comparison.

The good news is that things are improving across Europe – but no country had quite the same trajectory as Britain. They all have a fall much closer to a straight line of the sort you’d expect a general improvement in car safety would produce.

One thing I did notice is that, from 2013, these five countries stop falling. The technology based solutions of recent years, such as automatic emergency braking, don’t appear to be saving lives as of yet.

So, yes, cars are safer – but that doesn’t seem to explain why British roads suddenly became 40 per cent safer between 2006 and 2010.

In 1999, the New Labour government announced that it was going to reduce deaths on our roads. The target was a 50 per cent reduction by 2010. As you now know, it succeeded. This was a major achievement for a government. The kind of thing you would bang on about all the time. “Deaths on our roads halved by Labour!” But the party wasn’t in government when the 2010 figures were released – and it’s hard to take credit for your achievements from the opposition benches.

That it was government policy is not a full explanation, and how this happened is a little opaque. From what I can gather there was a wide ranging approach. The fire and rescue service changed their practices: because they recognised that survival rates were directly dependent on how quickly people got to hospital, this became the priority. Disturbing a police crime scene was allowed if it saved a life. Accident black spots were located, highlighted and safety measures implemented. Throughout that period road safety campaigns focused on speed, with “Speed Kills” being the dominate message for that decade. The government also changed the laws on speed cameras.

RoSPA, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, has a lot to say about speeding and speed cameras. Its “Speed Camera Factsheet” states that, “Cameras are a very effective way of persuading drivers not to speed, and thereby reducing the number of people killed and seriously injured.” It reports that an independent review published by the Department for Transport (DfT) in 2005 said that “cameras significantly reduce speeding and collisions, and cut deaths and serious injuries at camera sites”, adding that cameras sites were delivering 100 fewer deaths per year.

Cameras first appeared in 1991, and revenue from court fines and fixed penalties went to the Exchequer. However in 2000 a trial scheme saw local councils keep the fines to pay for the cost of speed and red-light cameras. The pilot was so successful that, in 2001, legislation enabled this to happen across the country. The cost of providing and operating cameras moved from the local authority to the law breaking motorist.

The golden age of the speed camera had begun.

There was a tweak to this legislation in 2007. Fines reverted back to the Exchequer’s piggy bank. The DfT switched to funding cameras through a road safety grant. The intention was to create a greater mix of road safety measures agreed between local authorities and the police.

The number of people killed on British roads in 2007: 2,946

The number of people killed on British roads in 2010: 1,857

So perhaps the creation of the Road Safety Grant had a significant impact.

The second question: why did the death toll stop falling?

In 2010 I was unaware of Labour’s target to halve deaths on the roads. But, the change in government was enough for me to predict that the fall was over.

When the Tory/Lib Dem government negotiated its way into power in May 2010, the press declared that it was the end of the horrible nanny state – a return to personal freedom, liberty and the rule of common sense.

The way that this was to play out in real practical terms was on our roads. The evil speed camera was in the firing line. The narrative was that these cameras were just there so councils could extract cash from the poor public. Completely ignored were the facts that the fines were only handed down to dangerous, law-breaking drivers, and that councils no longer got the cash from fines.

Soon after the election the coalition government said that “Labour's 13-year war on the motorist is over” and pledged to scrap public funding for speed cameras. The Road Safety Grant to local authorities was cut from £95m to £57m. This meant that the government was now receiving an estimated £40m more raised in fines than it was spending on road safety. The cut to the grant reduced the camera maintenance budget by 27 per cent. It removed all the funding for new cameras, speed humps and other safety measures.

And the golden age ended.

Councils across the country announced their change of policy. Oxfordshire County Council switched off its speed cameras on 1 August 2010. Money was saved; lives were lost.

Eight months later, on 1 April, Oxfordshire’s cameras snapped back into life when the council reversed its decision because deaths on the county’s roads had immediately increased.

Turning off speed cameras sent out the message that we were no longer taking speeding seriously. The road safety campaigns changed their focus. The message that Speed Kills fell away and was replaced by drink- and drug-driving messages. It’s easy to miss that these campaigns move from encompassing virtually every driver to targeting a minority. A switch from confronting a socially acceptable behaviour to re-enforcing something already unacceptable. The state is no longer challenging everyone to be safe – only the small minority of bad people.

Yet speed still kills. The World Health Organisation states that an increase in average speed of 1 km[h typically results in a 3 per cent higher risk of a crash involving injury, with a 4–5 per cent increase for crashes that result in fatalities.
The majority of safety measures installed before 2010 remain in place and are saving lives. But with the funding gone councils are no longer installing new measures and the death toll is no longer falling.

So you can make a strong case that the pattern of road deaths was the result of government policy.

Which begs the question of our government: why has it accepted that it’s OK to kill, or be killed, on our roads?