UKIP once pledged to turn London's Circle Line back into a circle. Here’s why it’s a bad idea

These are good, British shapes. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Today marks the start of UKIP’s annual conference. There are still a few loony lefty idiots out there who'd have you believe that Nigel Farage's UKIP is all lukewarm beer and genteel bigotry. Should you be one of those narrow-minded, liberal (and, frankly, bigoted) fools, here's an extract from documents accompanying the party's 2010 manifesto which shows that there's so much more to the party than that. (We’ve taken it from The Guardian, because the original document has mysteriously been removed.)

"Ukip will return London's Circle line to a circle – the complete circular service recently stopped. We will build grade-separated junctions to improve the number of trains and their reliability at Edgware Road, Gloucester Road and Aldgate."

See? They have actual transport policies, too, you racist.

In fairness, you can sort of see why this idea might have some appeal. Once upon a time, Circle line trains did exactly what you'd expect them to do: go round and round a loop enclosing much of central London (it's the yellow one):

Since December 2009, though, the line hasn't been a circle at all, but a sort of spiral, beginning at Hammersmith and going once round the loop before giving up at Edgware Road.

This throws up all sorts of irritating anomalies. It means the same train will stop at Paddington twice, 65 minutes apart, but on two different platforms. It means that the train will terminate at Edgware Road and reverse, but only the second time it gets there. And it means that there is no way to travel from the north side of the route to the west without changing trains at that very station.

Worst of all, it means it's called the Circle Line and it's not even a little bit like a circle. And that's just really irritating, in the same way as when someone leaves a cupboard door slightly open in your eye-line when you're trying to watch television, or when someone arranges all their books by order of colour. It just feels wrong.

So, bringing the circle back would be good, right?

Sadly, as with so many UKIP ideas, it all falls apart the moment you start thinking about it. The new service pattern was introduced for two reasons. Partly it was to increase the number of trains on the Hammersmith branch; but partly, it was because the old service pattern required trains to cross each other's paths at three different points. That places a limit on how frequently trains can run (sometimes, there’ll be another train in the way). Worse, it means that a delay on one bit of the line quickly has a knock on effect right across this bit of the network.

UKIP clearly know this – hence the promise to create "grade separated junctions" at the three pinch points. That'd mean creating new tracks travelling either under or over the existing ones, so that trains no longer have to cross each other's paths.

In other words, UKIP’s promise was a commitment to spend a lot of money on tunnelling, which might require paying compensation to those who own the properties above, would certainly mean moving a lot of utility pipes, and might not actually be possible at all – and all for no other reason than that it’s mildly annoying to have a line called the Circle line that isn't actually a circle.

Alas for fans of policy-making-through-OCD, Nigel Farage later described his party's 2010 manifesto as "nonsense", adding: "I didn't read it. It was drivel." Tragically, it seems the Circle line may never be a circle again.

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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So how could Northern Ireland spend £400m on new infrastructure?

Great Victoria Street station, Belfast. Image: Milepost98/Wikipedia.

Last year’s confidence and supply agreement between the Conservative party and the DUP saw 40 per cent of the Northern Irish party’s £1bn price tag allocated to infrastructure. Although there is, at the time of writing, no functioning government in the North to spend it, where could £400m be best used?

Northern Ireland is not, geographically, a large place. The six counties are inhabited by under 2m people and, to use a comparative metric that anyone who has sat in a high school geography lesson may remember, the North is less than half the size of Belgium. Belfast and Derry, Northern Ireland’s two major urban centres, are only a 70 mile drive apart. On the face of it then, an injection of cash into infrastructure should be relatively straightforward.

Yet the Belfast Rapid Transit system is the only notable public transport infrastructure currently being developed in the North. That takes the form of a web of connected bus lanes, as well as investment in a new bus fleet for use in them, that aims to cut car use in the heavily congested city.

One way to spend the money might be to tame the Irish Sea. Democratic Unionist Party MP Sammy Wilson claimed back in January a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland was “feasible” and would be a “much needed alternative” to the current ferry route. Unsurprisingly, he isn’t the first to notice that Northern Ireland’s east coast is only 20 miles from Scotland.

But while some MPs dream of bridges across the sea, interest in more useful infrastructure is less forthcoming. Take the NI Railways service, which despite the name only covers a fraction of the North. A simple glance over a map shows how fractured coverage is.

Even where the trains do run, the service is hardly efficient. The Belfast-Derry journey takes over two hours, which doesn’t compare well with the current London-Birmingham fast service, which covers almost twice the distance in 1hr22. Belfast City Airport, which last year handled 2.5m passengers, is serviced by Sydenham Station – but only via shuttle bus, which you have to request, or via the verge of the A2.

Meanwhile there is no train at all to Belfast International Airport: instead, an expensive taxi or a bus through the Northern Irish countryside is required. It may be scenic, but it isn’t good infrastructure.

That said, NI Rail saw 14.2m  passenger journeys last year, compared to 11.5m in 2012-13: the problem isn’t that there is no demand for infrastructure, simply that no one has bothered to build it.

It is a similar story with roads. Belfast and Derry are only a 70 miles apart, yet there isn’t a direct, or even indirect, motorway link between the two. In fact, there are only 60 miles of motorway in the entire North: all are in the east, almost exclusively focused on Belfast.

Northern Ireland is, of course, not the only part of the UK poorly supplied when it comes to transport. Anyone reading this who lives in the North East of England or who relies of commuters trains around Manchester, for example, will have experienced similar problem. So what makes Northern Ireland special?

Well: for a relatively small geographical area, there is a striking polarisation in the provision of transport. Not only is there an overall lack of infrastructure, but what does exist is overwhelmingly concentrated in the east. To take one instructive statistic, 51 of Northern Ireland’s railway stations are located east of the River Bann, the traditional dividing line between east and west.

This divide isn’t an accident: rather, it’s a legacy of the North’s sectarian history. The east has been traditionally unionist, the west nationalist, and there has been a strong bias in economic power and investment towards the former. As analysis from Northern Irish regeneration advisor Steve Bradley shows, the main rail and road networks are almost exclusively confined to areas where Protestant are more common than Catholics, and where the DUP holds political power.

So, if the North does come under direct rule from Westminster, there are some fairly obvious gaps in the transport network that could do with being filled – based on the needs of citizens, rather than their background or voting preference. But with the open question of the Irish border hanging over us – something which brings implications for cross-border travel along with everything else – the chances of that appear slim.