Where should Crossrail for the North go?

Manchester Victoria. Image: Getty.

There was an election a few weeks ago, if you hadn’t noticed, and our new Conservative government is talking about the north a lot. It’s also talking about transport in the north a lot.

So, it’s at least possible that the north will see a sizeable chunk of money spent on transport in the coming years. Specifically, this investment will probably come in railways, creating more and faster journeys between the north’s major cities.

There are a number of names for this plan – Northern Powerhouse Rail, or High Speed Three, or Crossrail North, or some other name dreamed up by a man in a suit behind a desk in London – and, in fact, there are already concrete plans for this project, which could well come to fruition when the government actually manages to sort itself out.

The immediate question is which northern areas are the most populated and economically important – and so which regions need to be better linked by these plans. It would be difficult to measure this equally across the north, but thankfully the government has actually done something useful, for once. (You may be getting the impression that I have lost faith in the government. You would be correct.)

In 1972, the Tory government of the time created a handy subdivision called a metropolitan county – a sort of highly populated and urbanised area, found mainly in the north (as well as in Birmingham – no, not northern), and including Greater Manchester (population 2.8 million), West Yorkshire (2.3 million), South Yorkshire (1.4 million), Merseyside (1.4 million) and Tyne & Wear (1.1 million). Humberside isn’t technically a county anymore, and never was a metropolitan county anyway, but that too is a pretty highly populated region, so it gets included in NPR plans.

These figures suggest that the priority for any northern rail line should to link Manchester and West Yorkshire. And indeed, this has been a plan for a while: the main idea is to link Manchester and Leeds by a new line via Bradford. This also comes alongside the Transpennine route upgrade – an increase in capacity between Huddersfield and Leeds, which should happen regardless of whether NPR/HS3/C4TN goes ahead.

However, the NPR plan is, well, a bit weird. Here’s a map of what it’s supposed to look like:

Click to expand. Image: Department for Transport.

What this entails is upgraded lines between most of these locations, and a new line between Manchester and Leeds, but it’s clear that there’s one major problem – or, perhaps, two slightly smaller problems amounting to the aforementioned major problem.

First problem: not a major one, but the fact that Manchester Airport is defined as a city region really irritates the pedant within me. It’s an airport, mate – does it even have a cathedral? No? Clearly not a city, then.

Second problem: Newcastle. I love Newcastle; it’s the best city in the world. But this map shows how awkward it is to access. The rest of the Northern Powerhouse is firmly situated in the south of the north, and Newcastle is very very northern.

Whilst the plan does not suggest a new line between Newcastle and the rest of the north, it does highlight it as an important destination. Whilst this is true, Tyne & Wear is the least populated of the five Northern metropolitan counties (it does have a large catchment area for much of the north-east, though).

To add to this, there’s not very much between Leeds and Newcastle. The East Coast Main Line to Newcastle is pretty straight all the way until Darlington, and the distance between York and Newcastle is around 80 miles, which is typically covered in just under an hour. In this way, whilst HS3 to Newcastle sounds like a good idea, it isn’t really – you can’t really deliver speed improvements for much of the route.

So while small capacity improvements, such as four-tracking some of the route, could be possible, making Newcastle an integral part of HS3 is little more than PR spin. The NPR plan does suggest improving services, providing direct and express links without huge investment – but it is unclear how this will actually be a boost to current TranspennineExpress services (assuming that the operator is actually functioning).

Sheffield has the same problem. Sheffield is also great, but it’s a bit isolated. Instead, the priority should be improving current links to Sheffield, instead of treating it as an integral part of the NPR network; just like Newcastle, it doesn’t really fit into HS3 (it should, however, get HS2, unlike Newcastle).

Yes, the plan for both these cities is to upgrade lines and reduce journey times. But – and this is the crucial point – this is not enough. Improving existing lines shouldn’t be the subject of a huge regional initiative; it should be the basic requirement for any government worth its salt (yes, I’m hammering the government again). Improvements to the Hope Valley Line, between Sheffield and Manchester, amounting to a couple of new pieces of track have had planning permission since 2018, but work will now not begin until 2022. This is, quite literally, a joke.

Improving lines to Sheffield and Newcastle will improve the situation in the southern north and northern north. But in the middling north, for a real revolution in Transpennine travel, we need to do two things.

Firstly, we need a new line linking Liverpool and Hull, stretching across the north. Connections to the West Coast Main Line are available from Manchester; connections to the CrossCountry route across Yorkshire are available from Leeds; connections to the East Coast Main Line are available from York; and Liverpool and Hull are populated regions with a large catchment area and decent cultural influence. (Liverpool has football, music and history; Hull is the current UK capital of culture.)  

A properly fast service between these four cities, unencumbered with current services – possibly with an intermediate stop in Bradford – would reduce journey times across the North. It would require new routes, probably all the way between Manchester and York, but would create a form of Crossrail for the North:

Click to expand. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

Yes, Liverpool and Hull aren’t as big as Manchester and Leeds; but transport can’t just tie in the biggest cities, or it loses passengers. Manchester and Leeds already dominate the north and only including those two cities in transport spending will widen the divide further.

And, with this bit sorted, we could do something crazy and build a Northern/borders circle. This is getting a bit mental, but bear with me. There is now additional capacity on Transpennine lines, freed up by the creation of this turn-up-and-go service. What we could make looks something like this:

Click to expand. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

Whilst this may not seem very coherent (not least because my cartography abilities are extremely poor), it offers incredible journey opportunities. People travel on the West Coast Main Line. People travel on the East Coast Main Line. People travel on the Transpennine route. People travel between Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Put it together and you get a fast, frequent and fundamentally simple service linking together the north and the Scottish lowlands without the need to change multiple times – a factor exacerbated by the plethora of operators between these locations, reducing connectivity. Honestly, if you’re creating a true Northern Powerhouse, it makes sense to link into Scotland as well – a fact recognised by TransPennine Express, which recently extended its Liverpool-Newcastle services to Edinburgh (I don’t have a map of this, because TPE still haven’t made one). Trains would have to reverse at one or two places for this circle to work, but it looks well cool, and is also fundamentally feasible.

Some of you will be thinking, “This is a bit of a contradiction in your argument. One minute you’re saying that Newcastle is really awkward and the Northern Powerhouse should be concentrated on the Liverpool-Hull corridor; the next minute, you’re asking for a ‘borders circle’ which would in all likelihood take upwards of six hours to complete a circuit.”

To an extent, you’re right. But there’s a difference. The borders circle is a service. On the other hand, if HS3 is to succeed, it must include completely new infrastructure. A new line between Manchester and Leeds is a good – albeit expensive – idea, but a new line between Leeds and York, or at least a highly expensive expansion of the current route, is also desperately needed, alongside capacity improvements between Manchester and Liverpool and York and Hull to allow complete segregation of these trains running at ten-minute intervals.

When you’re talking about a service, length doesn’t really matter – it’s about connectivity. On the other hand, with infrastructure upgrades, the length of track you’re upgrading or the length of new line you’re building is unbelievably important, because it causes costs to shoot through the roof. The government doesn’t like spending money, but they will be more amenable to a big new train going around the borders and improving links with Scotland (anything to postpone yet another referendum).

We’re reaching the end of this piece, and it’s time for full disclosure: I’m a northerner, and a sceptical one at that. The government has been talking about improving northern transport for years and years and next to nothing has happened, especially outside the north-west. That said, I do think some form of HS3/NPR/Crossrail North will happen: politically, it is vital for either Labour or the Conservatives to try to connect to these northern areas. If HS2 doesn’t go beyond Birmingham, HS3 may be the ironic payoff for the North.

I’m less convinced about the Northern And Borders Orbital Railway (NABOR for short). But we can dream. 


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.