Like Dr Who, the writer of this column travels through time and space. Time because my memory goes back a long way, and space because my research area is not limited by the Tyne and the Forth, but extends throughout Great Britain.
Wherever one goes in this country, it is often necessary to pass through one of the great centres of population. This is often to change trains, and may involve changing stations.
In some cities, my knowledge of them does not extend much beyond the well-trodden path from Queen Street to Central, or between New Street and Moor Street, or to a lesser extent between Piccadilly and Victoria.
A recent visit to London made both me and my companion realise how much of the city we really did not know, despite both of us having been born and brought up in the suburbs.
As the capital of the United Kingdom, London is not just for Londoners, it is for all of us, and there are very few of us who do not go there sufficiently often to recognise at least some of the sights.
This familiarity with places far from home is due to the railways.
It is 189 years since the Stockton and Darlington Railway opened as the first public railway to use steam locomotives, and within eighty years the railway system in this country reached its zenith, so that at the time of the First World War there were very few places further than five miles from a railway station.
After 50 years of economic struggle, during which the railways suffered from the growth of road motor transport, the railway system began to shrink as the motorway network grew, and for the last 40 years there has been a period of uneasy stability in the size of the railway network, while there have been tremendous advances in the technology of the trains, and of the road competition.
Transport is the oil which lubricates the machinery of commerce.
Cities which are rivals must nevertheless be linked for their mutual benefit. Edinburgh and Glasgow are being linked by better transport infrastructure as lines are electrified and plans laid for more frequent train services.
As well as the railways, Scotland benefits from an excellent coach network by Scottish Citylink.
In the industrial revolution Manchester’s development depended upon easy access to the port of Liverpool, and the world’s first public railway to operate to a disciplined timetable was opened between the two cities in 1830.
Five years earlier, the Stockton and Darlington Railway had been the first to use steam locomotives for the haulage of coal, but passengers were conveyed in horse-drawn coaches to start with.
The Liverpool and Manchester Railway built upon the experience gained there and ran a competition to find the best steam locomotive. George and Robert Stephensons’ Rocket won, perhaps partly because they were the only manufacturers of some of the parts needed to build a steam locomotive, and their competitors’ locomotives kept breaking down during the trials, which were held at Rainton in 1830.
Manchester’s industrialists were concerned about the level of charges on the railway to convey the ever increasing quantities of raw materials inward and finished goods outward, so in 1890 the Manchester Ship Canal was opened to enable sea-going ships to reach Manchester.
As the great manufacturing cities of the north of England grew in size, transport connections were required, but as manufacturing activity declined in the latter part of the 20th century, a great deal of decaying infrastructure is being replaced by more modern types of commercial activity, and it is time for a big clean-up.
The civic leaders of the northern cities have been developing a scheme for better connectivity, and recently the Chancellor of the Exchequer endorsed the idea, but made the mistake of describing it as HS3, which conveyed entirely the wrong impression of what is required.
True, speed is desirable. This is coming anyway, as electrification across the north is spreading, and electrification results not only in faster, but also more frequent connections, with greater capacity.
Many of the north of England’s existing train services will be transformed during the remainder of this decade. What is being discussed is a major expansion of the existing network beyond the present developments.
London’s schemes are now fairly well sorted. Thameslink services are to be so frequent that it will be necessary for them to be controlled by computer rather than a driver through the central area; Crossrail is under construction, and plans for Crossrail 2 (south-west to north-east) are being developed. It is now the turn of the north to have massive investment in rail infrastructure to bind together Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield in a conurbation which will be larger than London.
○John Wylde is the author of ‘Integrated Transport – a Will-o’-the-wisp?’ (www.john-wylde.co.uk). This book, priced at £14.95, is available to Berwickshire News readers for £11.95 post paid and signed by the author. Order from the Berwickshire News office in Berwick.