Change is not always for the better on rail

Trans-Pennine will become a wholly electrified network across the north of England from Newcastle to Liverpool.
Trans-Pennine will become a wholly electrified network across the north of England from Newcastle to Liverpool.

‘Straws in the wind’ is an expression used when small, insignificant events occur which perceptive people realise will lead to much larger, more significant ones.

It is strange how politicians and their spin-doctors manage to make changes which are actually worse for people while making it sound as though they are going to be better. It involves a clever use of words and phraseology.

If you wonder what politicians have to do with the intricacies of train design and operation, when our railways are run by private-sector franchisees, you have to understand that so much of what the operators do is dictated by the Government.

Every new design of train is less comfortable than the ones it replaces. A journalist in the technical press has had a sight of the design for the new trains which we shall have on our line in 2018, and commented on the seats, which are arranged so that the passengers will have no window view.

Much of the publicity for change is based on the fact that if they tell us how much better it will be, many will believe it and have opinions more than half-formed before we experience the difference.

On the other side of the country, the line had been re-equipped with new trains which were more cramped than those they replaced, but the publicity had really talked them up, when, one day, one of the old trains put in an appearance. A passenger with a loud voice got in and stood in the doorway, saying ‘Oh, this is better’. He had not realised that the train he thought was so much better was one of the old ones, which the management hoped he had forgotten about.

As a nation we are inclined not to make a fuss, but it might benefit us occasionally to criticise what we are given if we think it represents a declining standard. The trouble with train design is that by the time we complain it is too late for corrective action to be taken.

It is all a question of policy. Dr Beeching took the blame for a major change of policy in connection with the railways in the 1960s for which he was not responsible. The man at the root of the problem, who made sure that Dr Beeching took the blame, was the Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.

Up to that point, our railways were recognised as an established and indispensable part of the country’s infrastructure. The design of rolling stock was subject to continuous improvement. Once the railways were under threat, the policy changed to one of continuous reductions of cost.

Coaches designed in the early 1970s were intended by the designers to be a further improvement on those which had gone before, but the Government insisted on the seats being packed in more tightly. Consequently, we thought they were cramped. They are still running, but nowadays we think they are quite spacious.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer has encouraged the idea of a northern mega-city based on Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds. Kingston-upon-Hull and Newcastle have both been mentioned as possible add-ons, but it seems unlikely that they could be part of a homogenous whole. What might this city be called? Limashel? The need for improved internal connectivity has been recognised right from the start so the electrification of the cross-Pennine lines, which is already under way, is only the beginning of a much larger and more significant event. It could be said to be a straw in the wind.

The establishment of a mega-city in the north of England will justify HS2 as the primary link between it and London. It will also need a major improvement in freight routes. It will no longer be possible to say that the existing lines will be able to cope with freight once HS2 has relieved them of the main north-south passenger traffic. I wonder when planning for that will begin and whether it will be part of planning for CT2 (a second Channel Tunnel)?

John Wylde is the author of ‘Integrated Transport – a Will-o’-the-wisp?’ ( This book, priced at £14.95, is available to readers for £11.95 post paid and signed by the author. Order from the Herald office.