Yesterday lunchtime, a cable broke in Wembley, north west London. That caused the signals to fail on the West Coast Main Line (WCML), and meant that, for two hours yesterday afternoon, trains could not travel between Euston and Watford Junction.
The resulting delays and cancellations didn’t just affect passengers, but also meant that dozens of trains and train crews weren’t were they were supposed to be at the time they were supposed to be there. That in turn meant more delays, cancellations, horrific overcrowding, the abandonment of all seat reservations, the rapid collapse of civilisation, and the passengers on the 15:45 to Woverhampton deciding to re-enact the last few chapters of Lord of the Flies. And all because a cable broke. It wasn’t a good day.
To make matters worse, yesterday was also the final day of the Labour party conference in Liverpool, two hours from London along this very line. That meant that large chunks of Britain’s government and media classes were trying to make their way home on the affected route.
And so, the problems got a lot more attention than they probably would otherwise. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn himself tweeted, “Couldn’t make this up. We need public ownership of our railways”, because it was a great excuse to remind everyone of a popular policy pledge, and you would, wouldn’t you?
Actually, though, this argument didn’t really stack up: the cause of the problems lay in infrastructure, not operations, and infrastructure already is in the hands of the publicly-owned Network Rail. If the railways had been completely nationalised last week, that cable still would have broken, and the chaos would have unfolded exactly the same way.
So: sorry, Jeremy, but yesterday’s mess does not actually make the case for nationalisation after all.
It does, however, make a strong case for another major rail policy of our era: High Speed 2.
One of the reasons a cable snapping in Wembley could cause as much chaos as it did is because the West Coast Main Line is one of the busiest railway routes in Europe. It links London with both candidates for the title “Britain’s second city”, Birmingham and Manchester; as well as two of the other big metropolitan areas, Glasgow and Liverpool; and other significant cities including Milton Keynes, Coventry, Wolverhampton, Preston and Stoke-on-Trent. That’s without even getting into the fact its branches double as major commuter routes in several of those places, and it’s also a major freight route.
So: it’s a pretty important route. If you were designing a railway network for resilience, you probably wouldn’t use the same line to link a country’s capital to its second, third, fifth and tenth largest metropolitan areas. It’s asking for trouble.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.
HS2 of course will also serve a number of these same cities, as well as several more (Nottingham, Sheffield, Leeds). But there’s a key difference: if HS2 existed, there’d be more than one major rail route connecting London and most of the major British cities. If that cable broke at Wembley, there’d still be a working railway line between Manchester and London. Hell, that’d be true if a cable broke on HS2, too: it’d make it a hell of a lot harder for one minor infrastructure failure to paralyse the country.
Most of the attempt to sell HS2 to a sceptical public have focused on speed, on the grounds that high-speed trains are sexy. But this hasn’t really taken, because “20 minutes off the journey time from London to Birmingham!” really doesn’t sound like that big a deal. A more convincing argument is the one about capacity: it says that the WCML is pretty much full, and so these routes need both more train paths and more seats.
For me, though, the most compelling case is the one about resilience: the argument that says that things will inevitably break, so we should have back-up systems. That is why we should build HS2: to make us less dependent on a single, ageing rail-route. A cable snapping in north London should not be enough to paralyse a country.