Between 1948 and 1997, Britain’s railways were an arm of the British state, for much of that time trading – a lot of thought went into this, one assumes – under the brand name British Rail.
But that wasn’t the only name to be found on the network during the era of nationalisation. Not all railways were created equal: the most prestigious, longer distance and – to generalise wildly – more profitable routes were branded as “InterCity” services. From 1976 onwards, these routes even had their own special trains, the InterCity 125, whose name tells you both a) which route they were used on and b) how fast they might go on a good day if you were lucky.
I vaguely remember all this from my childhood. What I didn’t remember is that there was a map. But here, thanks to the Independent’s Jon Stone, is the 1981 vintage:
The capital is very clearly at the centre of the network, despite definitely not being at the centre of the country. The train times shown are the fastest journeys to London. The headline (“The Inter-City Overground”), the entire style of the map, seem intended to bring to mind the tube map.
It’d be easy to conclude from this that InterCity meant “between London and other cities”. That’s not quite true – although the rail network was centred on London, especially after the early 1960s Beeching axe, there were “Cross Country” InterCity services which bypassed the capital altogether.
Nonetheless, this particularly map was clearly aimed at people trying to get either to or from London:
Does a train from London to Harwich really belong in the same box as one to Scoland? Okay, if you’re going to Harwich you’re probably getting a boat, so on balance the journey counts as long distance, but all the same, the train will only take you to Essex.
And don’t get me started on Brighton. That’s barely outside London at all. Surely these are just commuter services?
While we’re at it:
What’s going on with that white line to Dover?
Is it coloured differently to show how important it is? Or because it isn’t an InterCity service at all, but since, pre-Channel Tunnel, it’s the route you’d take to the continent, it seems worth highlighting anyway? In which case why did Harwich get to be InterCity when Dover didn’t?
Maybe it’s just there because once you’ve decided to centre your map on London you don’t want to end up with a strange unsightly gap in the bottom right hand corner. Who knows.
Anyway, more important things:
A bunch of cities lost direct trains to London when privatisation happened
There was much excitement in Shropshire in 2014: that December, it finally lost its status as the only county in England without a direct rail link to the capital, when Virgin began running trains from Shrewsbury to London. (Edit to add: On Twitter, it’s been pointed out to me that a previous operator, the Wrexham & Shropshire, had run from 2008-11.)
The odd thing is, though, in 1981, this train already existed. It’s just that it got canned when British Rail did, forcing proud Salopians to change at Birmingham for nigh on 20 years.
It’s a similar story with several other places. There are direct trains from London to Bradford these days – but they’re indirect and pootling and take an hour more than they did in 1981, so generally speaking you’re better off changing at Leeds. As for Middlesbrough there are still no direct trains to London – although Virgin plan to start running them in 2020.
Why didn’t these routes survive privatisation? One possible reason is that they simply weren’t profitable, so nobody wanted to run them. (Great.) But there is another, less cynical possibility, which we’ll come to below.
Some of the journey times have got longer too
One of the most common responses when Jon tweeted the map was along the lines of, “Wow, my train has actually got slower.”
And it’s true, it’s depressingly easy to find examples. The InterCity map gives a 22 minute journey time from London to Reading. The fastest today seems to be 25, and most trains take around 40. For London to Bristol it gives a journey time of 1hr25: the fastest now seems to be 1hr37, the average around 1hr52.
So – things have got worse, right?
Well, maybe. But there are two mitigating factors to consider, courtesy of the former Financial Times transport correspondent Robert Wright:
That was possible b/c there were around half the trains on the network then that there are now.
To put it another way: services may be slightly slower now, but there are more of them, and they serve more stations. That probably, on balance, makes for a more useful rail network.
This might explain the end of some direct services, too. Okay, so there are no direct services from Middlesbrough to London. But there are very frequent services from Middlesbrough to Darlington, and from Darlington to London, and while changing is a pain in the bum, this might on balance work out quicker than waiting for the one direct train a day.
It takes bloody ages to get to Inverness
I know it’s a long way, but 10hr44 from London? Really? Surely it must be faster today?
It is, as it happens. You can now do it under 9 hours. Luxury.
A late 1980s TV advert for InterCity services.
This map dates from around 1981. In 1986, British Rail underwent a process known as “sectorisation”, which basically meant dividing it into three.
One was InterCity. Another was Network SouthEast, the London commuter zone (although this also included a couple of services previously branded as InterCity). Everything else got dumped into a third box, labelled Regional Railways.
I started this little tour by saying that, despite appearances, the InterCity network was not entirely about London. Despite my protests, however, those who ran the railway network as a whole clearly felt that most of it was.
I’m not really going anywhere with this. It just depresses me a bit, that’s all.