In the North of England we don’t have to remember British Rail: we’re still stuck with all its old trains

An Arriva Trains Northern Class 142 Pacer at Leeds. Image: Hugh Llewelyn/Wikimedia Commons.

The Prime Minster was asked about rail nationalisation by Andrew Marr. She rolled out the pathetic line, “I remember British Rail”, in a tone of voice that is the preserve of the smart aleck.

Why is this argument pathetic? Because it implies that a 2017 nationalised railway would be exactly the same as BR 1992 – that there would have been no evolution, growth or change in those times.

My response to Theresa May is that I don’t have to remember BR. I live in York so, when I catch a train, 9 out of 10 times I board British Rail rolling stock. Let me take you through them.

To London!

I’ll start with the good stuff. In 1991 BR completed the electrification of the East Coast Mainline. It achieved this on budget, and only seven weeks late. Network Rail would be delighted if any of their electrification projects came in seven months late, let alone seven weeks.

New trains arrived: the Intercity 225. The electric locomotive is capable of 140mph (225kph), but because the government wouldn’t pay for upgraded signaling, they are limited to 125mph. They did bring journey time improvements: 25 years ago you could travel from York to London in 101 minutes. Today, however, it takes 110 minutes, and you’re on the same Intercity 225, albeit with new seats and carpets.

There is nothing wrong with these trains – I’m travelling on one as I write this – but it is still a BR experience, not a memory, even though a Virgin logo has superseded the Intercity Swallow on the seat across from me.

To Birmingham!

The Cross Country route also used to be served by Britain’s greatest train, the Intercity 125. Today, rather than those seven, majestic coaches of standard class luxury, I now suffer a 4 coach Voyager, a train designed by an airline.

I despise the Voyager so much, I literally go out of my way to avoid them. When I travel to Sheffield, I get on a 30 year old Express Sprinter to Leeds and change there on to another.

Never underestimate the simple pleasure of being able to look out of a train window: even Wakefield is a better to look at than the back of all those Voyager seats. In 1992 Birmingham was 131 minutes from York, but the Voyager is quicker than a 125: the torture only lasts 112 minutes.

To Manchester!

Good news: things have improved since BR, with new trains and a more frequent service.

A Class 185 Desiro Train at Manchester Piccadilly. Image: Spookster67/Wikimedia Commons.

I like the Desiro trains that run on the Transpennine route: they’re spacious and have big windows. But they are still only 3 coaches, the same as the BR ones they replaced, and because these are modern trains they have significantly less seats. So lots of people are standing, despite the increase from two trains per hour to 4 between York and Manchester. There has been a nine minute journey time improvement, though, which is good.

To Scarborough!

This route has the same new trains as Manchester, what with it being a through service between the two. But these trains are heavy: the term used in the technical press is “lard butt”.

The excess of weight means they do more damage to the track, so they aren’t allowed to run as fast as they could. They do accelerate quicker, though, which means the journey time is the same 48 minutes now as it was in 1992.

But – Northern Trains has a plan for a new York-to-Scarborough service with lightweight trains, so we may finally see a quicker service. Those new, slimline trains will be late BR Express Sprinters dating to the late 1980s.

To Hull!

I was pleasantly surprised last week when I popped over for some Culture and it only took 56 minutes. I can’t recall a time when it took less than an hour.

Turns out its a Sunday thing: it’s still 66 minutes on weekdays. For a bit of context I once cycled from York to Hull in 100 minutes, but I did have a backwind.

Last week’s train may have been quicker, but it was still very BR. By this I mean that the 30 year old train has never been refurbished. Same tables and chairs, original wall panels, overhead racks and colour scheme. Same doors, same toilets with the same confusing button to lock the door that people still don’t press. There may have been four different liveries on the outside, but once you step on board, the only thing that’s been replaced are the seat covers.

A train is generally expected to be in service for 30 years. At 15 years they receive a half-life refurbishment. At 30, if they are still needed, they will go for a life extension refurb. The entire Northern fleet missed out on the half-life refit, when all their internal fixtures and fittings should have been stripped out and replaced with new. But we still put up with the overhead racks rattle and squeak as they did when BR bought them.

To Harrogate!

This is the humdinger. If you are lucky, you get on a Sprinter, 1984’s finest. But if your luck is out you’ll find a Pacer waiting in platform 8.

The Sprinter is the more comfortable train, because it has the standard number of wheels per coach – that is, eight – and it has secondary suspension. The Pacer threw away a hundred years of coach design when it was built with only four wheels. Any chance of a comfortable train was also chucked out.

The downside of the Sprinter is that all the seats precisely misalign with the windows: it doesn’t matter which seat you get, you will be craning your neck once you’ve finished checking Twitter. Windows are the only area that a Pacer wins over every other train: they are basically strip glazing from end to end and offer a great view as you pass over Knaresborough viaduct.

The seats, however, are literally from a bus factory, and being 30 years old represent the absolute pinnacle of uncomfortable bus seat design. To make matters worse, the seat spacing is only suitable for people who don’t have knee caps.

Yet it’s not just the trains that are very British Rail: the signalling is also pre-privatisation.

A few minutes out of York the train stops at Poppleton, a small station in one of York’s detached suburbs. The observant passenger may spot the signalman leave his box and walk to the train to hand the driver a token. Only once in possession of this lump of metal, the driver is allowed to enter the single line of track: this ensure that you can never accidentally end up with two trains on the track at once.

At the next station, the train rejoins the double track, and another signalman is on hand to take back possession of the token. But the real wheeze is that a couple of miles later the whole process is repeated for the second section of single track as far as Knaresborough. This isn’t taking me back to 1992, but to 1892, at least.

What this shows is that the last major railway investment in Yorkshire and the North East happened in the 1980s. British Rail did a good job for us. But 25 years of privatisation has brought little benefit to this region, and a fraction of what was achieved by BR in the decade leading up to its sell off. BR left York with a fleet of trains with an average age of under 10 years, and that stud is all still with us today.

So, Prime Minister, you may remember British Rail – but I don’t have to, I experience it nearly every time I board a train.

That said, with BR you couldn’t travel from Dundee to York First Class for £20 and receive free beer. I’m on my fourth bottle. Cheers, Virgin Trains.

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How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 

CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.