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Off the rails
December 2018 / January 2019


"Belated, and almost entirely superfluous": The Great Central Railway network, 1903

I say! What’s that on the horizon? Is this a railway? Can this be the fabulous HSL2, which is to link Manchester (and Birmingham and Leeds) to London? Chuff, chuff!

For the moment, this new railway still requires the eye of faith. Not a sod has been turned — on the ground, that is — and nothing has gone up except the likely cost. Indeed, it must be many years since the last southbound main line to London was built: 119 years, to be precise.

This was the Great Central Railway, brainchild of Sir Edward Watkin, Victorian railway mogul and visionary, or, in the words of his railway’s historian, pig-headed old man. He had longed to give his Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway a proper line to London, like its rivals. This finally set out from north of Nottingham and built its terminus at Marylebone, picking up a grander corporate name along the way. 

The new line was a model — splendidly engineered, modest gradients, gentle curves — and correspondingly expensive. The budget for building it rose to £11 million, the Great Central was pressed for cash and had to buy its carriages and locomotives on hire-purchase. Almost every major town along the way — Brackley, Northants, was the biggest exception — was served by a railway already. Watkin had claimed that his line would be needed to satisfy an increasing demand. That never really happened, and certainly not on a scale that would provide enough traffic all round. 

So, for the rest of its life, the Great Central paid no dividend on its ordinary shares, and Watkin’s new line bore out the verdict of Sir John Clapham, the Cambridge economist: “A belated, and almost entirely superfluous, product of the original era of fighting construction.” When a cold wind blew through British Railways in the 1960s, the line was shut down and pulled up. 

Now comes a far more ambitious project, once again based on assumptions of increasing demand. These are or were expected to justify a budget of £56 billion. Even that required an act of faith in the Department for Transport, scarcely justified by its attempts to electrify two existing main lines. Over budget, behind time, and now partially abandoned, they suggest that we would do better to electrify the Department.

Builders’ estimates, as all experience shows, tend to err on the low side, and some belated figures from HSL2’s auditors may soon bear this out. Unofficial figures now floating about are pushing the total cost towards 12 figures — that is to say, £100 billion. At that price, it may not be too late to learn from Sir Edward Watkin’s experience.
 
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