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Will our trains always be a joke?
The sorry saga of the chronically congested Castlefield corridor
The roads are unusable. The trains are a bloody joke. The politicians are so feeble-minded and gutless you can't even hate them.
The “grey and hopeless” sketch — which opened the fourth and final series of A Bit of Fry and Laurie in 1995 — came back to me this week, as I reflected on the long, drawn-out demise of HS2. A boss (Stephen Fry) walks in to find his colleague (Hugh Laurie) gazing disconsolately into the middle distance, sunk by the realisation that everything is grey and hopeless, and always will be. Fry’s character attempts to cheer him up (“I grant you things aren’t perfect”) but before long they’re both crumpled on the desk, massaging their temples in despair.
Of course, it was the line about trains that triggered the memory, but the overwhelming sense of hopelessness that pervades the sketch captures the mood of almost everyone I’ve contacted for this story. That’s true whether they were for or against HS2. Yes, it was over time, ludicrously over budget, and had failed to win over the hearts and minds of many. But it was at least underway.
It’s now been replaced by a wishlist of projects, “Network North”, hastily pushed out as the HS2 announcement was finally being made. It’s fair to say the document has struggled as it’s made contact with reality. Critics have been quick to point out that some things on the list aren’t in the North; some of the proposals (such as a Metrolink connection to Manchester airport) already exist; about a quarter of the money looks set to be spent on potholes; and that the caveat, hidden in the footnotes — “as usual, individual projects referenced in this document will be subject to the approval of business cases” — could be used as a get-out clause for most of them.
As Christian Spence, a regional economist and data scientist, described it to me this week: “It’s one certain thing taken away, and a load of highly uncertain things put in its place”. Or as Nigel Sarbutts, small business owner and Mill member who describes himself as “very sceptical” of HS2 tells me after the announcement: “I’m certainly not gloating, because what we’ve got is just a mish mash of promises”.
The curse of the Castlefield corridor
Sunak’s political strategy relies on the fact that most people care a lot more about their immediate transport problems facing them on a day-to-day basis than some far off, high speed line. We’ve talked enough about buses on The Mill recently. So what’s the situation on our already existing, not so high-speed, railways?
This map shows central Manchester’s rail network. The cause of a great deal of pain for a great many people is the blue section, the Castlefield corridor, which connects Piccadilly, Oxford Road and Deansgate. This small rail section has a very large number of trains pushed through it, including transpennine services, Manchester airport services and freight trains journeying from Trafford Park.
To gauge the impact of this bottleneck on services, I had a look at the On Time Trains website, which uses live departure time data to rank UK stations according to the punctuality of trains. The Castlefield corridor stations are something of a rogue’s gallery: out of 2,633 UK rail stations, Piccadilly comes in at 2,254th for punctuality; Oxford Road, 2,507th; and Deansgate 2,550th (using data from the last six months). Among the nation’s 100 busiest stations, Oxford Road is the worst for delays.
These stations are absolutely vital to Manchester’s economy, and they’ve got some of the worst performance levels anywhere in the country. We somehow find ourselves in the outrageous situation where at the heart of one of the UK’s biggest population centres the trains often simply don’t work. Some of the nation’s least delayed stations, by contrast, are in London: Fenchurch Street, Marylebone and Liverpool Street are all zone 1 London stations among the nation’s best performing.
The website also uses a traffic light colour scheme to capture how bad the delays from any particular station are each day. Their assessment of Deansgate’s performance for the last six months is pretty bleak. (Don’t worry if you’re red-green colourblind, there’s no green on it).
Punctuality performance at Deansgate station over the last six months
And that’s in spite of masses of leeway built into the timetable in anticipation of delays, with some trains allowing 15 minutes to travel roughly four kilometres between Victoria and Piccadilly.
How much is poor local transport connectivity like this holding Greater Manchester back? The think tank Centre for Cities compared Manchester with Hamburg, looking at how many people could get to the centre. Although the “urban area” has a population more than a third bigger than Hamburg’s, 300,000 more Hamburgers than Mancunians can get to their city centre by thirty minutes’ public transport. That makes the “effective size” of Hamburg bigger, and helps it to be more productive by getting more people to work in well-paying jobs. We can’t pin all of this on the Castlefield corridor — but it’s a critical issue that holds our city and economy back.
A few years ago, there was – finally – progress, as the city got its first new piece of major rail infrastructure: the Ordsall Chord (pink on the map above).
I wander over to take a look. It’s a lovely piece of infrastructure, with a cast iron swoosh and a nice criss-cross with a pedestrian bridge beneath. Castlefield is my favourite bit of Manchester because of all its bridges, with trams, trains, and people shuttling around on different levels. I sit myself down on the Salford side, opposite Aviva Studios, and wait for a train to come.
And wait. Why is the Chord so quiet, when the Castlefield corridor is heaving? A cormorant flies along the Irwell. After a while I want to scream at the many passersby giving me pitying looks that I'm a journalist, not a trainspotter. But my accessories – an anorak and a notebook — suggested the precise opposite.
As more time passes, I try to work out what it is that Aviva Studios reminds me of. A cyberman? No, it’s more angular than that. I check my WhatsApps — a friend is fuming about what seems to be an immediate backtrack following Sunak’s speech: apparently HS2 is no longer going to Euston, unless magical private investment can be brought in. I laugh a mirthless laugh, before suddenly realising a train is actually passing and quickly stand up to take a photo.
It’s only when I do some research later that I realise why the line is so quiet. The story of the Ordsall Chord, it turns out, pretty well encapsulates much that is wrong in how we build infrastructure.
As Manchester stations faced too much demand in the 1970s, and were clogged up with terminating trains, it was suggested that the two major stations, Piccadilly and Victoria, needed to be joined up (at the time, it was impossible to journey from one to the other). A “Picc-Vic” tunnel proposal was put forward and then discarded — in what will become a familiar refrain — on the grounds of cost.
Instead, the Ordsall Chord was seen as a cheaper way forward. It received parliamentary go ahead in 1979. But even this was deemed by some to be too costly, and local politicians objected. It ended up being shelved in 1985.
Twenty years later, the idea got a reboot, and a further twelve years later it was finally completed, in 2017. You can see on the map above how this small curve of rail infrastructure at long last allowed trains to travel directly between Piccadilly and Victoria.
A success then. Actually, no. Many, including Network Rail, think it’s making matters worse along the infamous Castlefield corridor, by allowing more trains to flow along that route. Without additional lines and platforms at Piccadilly (the long hoped for platforms 15 and 16) the bottleneck has intensified. One proposal put forward by Network Rail and the Department for Transport to reduce Castlefield’s congestion actually suggested cutting trains over the Chord to just one an hour.
In summary, fifty years after it was first proposed, something that was designed to relieve congestion finally got built but is little used because it adds to congestion. We spent forever building one bit, and didn’t build any of the other bits needed to actually make that bit work. Meanwhile the impossibly more complex Crossrail Elizabeth Line has been built; and the dream of a Manchester underground line simply connecting our two main stations seems as remote as ever.
As I walk back to the office, I remember: it’s Colosson, the supercomputer from Mitchell and Webb’s Numberwang game show. Only he can calculate whether the baffling series of numbers reeled off by contestants are, in fact, Numberwang. The total cost of our continual flip-flopping over rail infrastructure, probably only Colosson knows.
Why is my mind taking refuge in favourite sketches from years ago? It feels suspiciously like the inbuilt British instinct to sublimate grief into humour is kicking in. Though I wasn’t besotted with HS2, the sense that we’re once again decades off anything significant changing depresses me. Cynical laughter feels like the only comfort we’re left with. Still, at least we’re not Leeds — this week, once again promised the tram that never comes.
I wander down to Oxford Road to catch my train home, and get talking to Mark, a platform guard, about the problems on this bit of the network. If the trains are going to be awful, it’s good that they have people like Mark around. He seems genuinely calm in the face of the chaos unfolding around him, idly tapping his head with his signalling baton, while fielding all manner of queries about platform alterations and train times.
With no sense of malice, Mark reels off an entire catalogue of wrongs on the network: Oxford Road is a “dumping ground” where trains back up when Piccadilly is full; the crews all change over here, causing delays; some platforms are too short for six-carriage trains.
Then there are the disruptive events like medical emergencies, which — due to lack of any spare capacity — cause everything to snarl up. Last week, it was a train setting fire after the filter for clearing leaves blocked, and the leaves ignited. “Time of year”, Mark explains. Of course: Manchester autumn, the season where trains combust.
I ask if he has to deal with much aggression from exasperated customers, which he does, but he’s sanguine. “It really doesn’t bother me… I never feel threatened by anyone.” This is perhaps unsurprising, as Mark is roughly seven foot tall. A man in his sixties comes over, asking how to get to Leeds. He’ll need to find some way to Victoria, Mark says, as industrial action has impacted the TransPennine Express trains through here. “Oh well”, he sighs, and wanders off, only to come back a couple of minutes later. “Perhaps I could go to Sheffield first?” Mark shrugs. “Yeah, if you want.”
Always approaching, never arriving
HS2 was an odd project, in that many people — including most people in the world of think tanks and local government — thought it important, but despite the CGI images of shiny trains, very few people were genuinely excited by it. Supporters have been accused of not making a clear enough case — with the balance between speed, capacity and economic regeneration at best poorly communicated. Its main advocate, the former New Labour minister Lord Andrew Adonis, hasn’t been in government for 13 years.
Am I too hasty in using the past tense, or is there a chance HS2 beyond Birmingham might survive? Andy Street, the mayor of the West Midlands, has decided to channel his inner Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and source funds from wealthy backers to build the line. Well, we are often reminded that the Victorians were much better at building stuff than us, so perhaps a Victorian approach to funding it is the way to go. But how this would work — would the private sector run it? Or sell it back to Network Rail at a vastly inflated price? — remains to be seen. With the government already flogging the land the thing was going to be built on, it feels unlikely.
The Network North document does include a commitment to building the Manchester – Liverpool leg of “Northern Powerhouse Rail”, a project for east-west fast connectivity that certainly excites Northern leaders. That means we would still have a large, underground, high-speed line going through south Manchester, perhaps one day making it easier to get to Leeds and Liverpool. But many aren’t feeling overly hopeful. Much of the commentary following the announcement of Network North has simply been: “why should we believe you?”
The HS2 fable resonates because it fits perfectly into two strong national narratives. The first, that the South always gets more than the North, couldn’t appear starker than a high-speed line that was supposed to connect the entire country and unlock the economies of the North stopping at Birmingham. And the second – that we as a nation have just stopped being able to do stuff – is self-evident.
Like a dream in which you run but never get any closer to your object, this week serious rail investment in the North once more slipped into “some time in the future, but not now”. Meanwhile, billions of pounds have floated away, never to be seen again. In 1995, the trains were a bloody joke. Three decades later, they still are – particularly in Manchester. Will they ever not be?
This article was updated at 18:36 on 7/10/23 to clarify that freight trains through the Castlefield corridor travel to Trafford Park.