1. Transport
November 27, 2015updated 20 Jul 2021 10:30am

From Manchester to Marseille: What can the promise of high speed rail do to a city?

By Charlie Critchell

Alighting at Marseille’s Saint-Charles railway station on a balmy August evening, a colleague and I made our way to the head of the grand stone staircase which sweeps leisurely down to street level. As we paused momentarily to appreciate the sprawling city beneath us, I cast my mind back to earlier in the day – 7.15am, in fact – when I had left another major city back in the UK, Manchester, then still shrouded in gloom.

Perhaps more importantly than where we had ended up was the way in which we had arrived: not by some ubiquitous budget airline with tedious transfers and a cosy cabin, but by train – station to station, city centre to city centre. What had started out as a rail journey of stop/start frustration between Manchester and London had ended with an easy saunter through the French countryside aboard one of SNCF’s revered Train Grand Vitesse (TGV) services.

Sat in the bar carriage, amid the convivial conversation of my fellow passengers, I soon shrugged off the day’s earlier stresses and gazed contentedly at the speeding scenery, safe in the knowledge that with each passing minute the mercury outside would continue to rise.

The chance to bask in a little Mediterranean sun was just a bonus. The real reason behind my foray south was the compulsion to test a few theories – theories concerning both Manchester and Marseille, arguably the emerging second cities of their respective countries, and the means by which they may soon be connected via a High Speed Rail line.

High Speed Rail is big news in both the UK and France, though for vastly different reasons. The French are more than a little smug about their much vaunted High Speed network, one which has been successfully rolled out across the country over the course of the last 30 years or more.

Here in the UK plans for a similar network have been championed and chastised in equal measure. Much has been made of the government’s plans to build HS2 – but between the attention-grabbing headlines concerning exorbitant costs and environmental ruin, how much do the public really know? Or perhaps of greater importance, do they even care?

I believe that yes, they do, and consequently set out on a series of consecutive rail journeys through the two countries with the aim of meeting some of them. Supported by The Academy of Urbanism Young Urbanists Small Grants Scheme, my travels took me up to Manchester and Liverpool here in the UK, and then down to Marseille and Toulon in the South of France.

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I wanted answers to three very specific questions: How good is the connectivity between different modes of transport along the route? What is the level of interdependence between rail infrastructure and city regions? And can high speed rail help to devolve power from a country’s capital and second city?

Manchester to London

Upon alighting at Manchester Piccadilly I threaded my way north to the site earmarked for a state of the art station concourse, set to house four new High Speed tracks. Taking a moment to imagine the hub of activity surrounding the proposed public plaza which will play host to a whole spectrum of civic life, I found myself thinking of chancellor George Osborne’s flagship Northern Powerhouse project: an initiative which would see Manchester – in effect, this very spot – at the heart of a new mega-conurbation to include nearby Liverpool, Sheffield, Leeds and York.

To supporters of HS2 the construction of the new rail line and the growth of the North are seen as not only symbolic,  but perhaps even symbiotic – a straightforward relationship of cause and effect. A couple of local contacts showed me around the city centre, before sitting down to discuss the government’s designs for Manchester and the potential effects its new role as the UK’s official second city may bring.

Manchester’s Metrolink. The trams have become a symbol of the city. Image: Getty.

Joe Ravetz and Gabi Schliwa, a senior lecturer and a PhD student at Manchester University’s School of Environment, are both wary of the supposed implications any perceived new status may bring. “Far from being a second city behind London we really believe that Manchester operates in a completely separate sphere. It’s not about North and South but Manchester as a place and a city in it’s own right,” argued Ravetz.

The pair further identified spending cuts, lack of accountability and “blame game” tactics as contributing to the poor state of the North’s much maligned rail network. “Yes, HS2 could work to increase opportunities for Northern Cities,” Ravetz told me. “But there remains a stronger need to make the north work as a cohesive entity first.”

On the train the following morning, I leafed through the locally-produced One North report – a manifesto setting out an integrated transport strategy in response to the Chancellors call to arms. What it was local people really wanted when it came to improving their transport links, I wondered?

As we crawled back to London, owing to disruption on the track somewhere ahead of us, I asked the retired Mancunian couple sat across the aisle from me what they wanted. Refreshingly, to them it wasn’t a case of either yes or no for HSR but rather: what next?

People are asking the wrong questions, they told me. “Rather than a High Speed line being used to devolve power to the north it’s the problem itself which should be devolved. Why can’t we harness the minds of our great local science and engineering schools to develop the next generation of rail travel?”

Their contention that High Speed Rail is in fact old technology was one with their belief that devolving the issue of next generation rail travel to the north as an engineering problem would serve to provide the region with a sense of genuine ownership over its future – and subsequently work to rebalance the disparity of power between North and South.

London to Marseille

After a delayed journey from Manchester on a claustrophobic Pendolino train, we arrived in the dreary low-lit enclave of Euston station. It was a welcome change, then, to transfer onto the Eurostar at St Pancras International.

The theatricality of St Pancras station definitely adds to the sense of adventure imparted by a Eurostar journey. The international trains’ décor is becoming a little tired, and space comes at a premium. But I found that, when faced with the prospect of travelling to the continent via other means, some passengers were more than willing to pay the extra cost to travel in comfort from city centre to city centre.

A Eurostar train emerges from the Channel Tunnel. Image: Getty.

One such, a middle aged lady from London, was travelling onto Nice to visit family, a trip she takes bi-monthly. She told me she prefers the train because of her aversion to flying, and the greater flexibility and comfort afforded by the train.

Questioned on her views about whether HSR could help devolve power away from a city’s capital, she told me that she believed it could – but only if that process was carefully regulated. “For me, London is and will always be the UK’s main city, and I really believe it is important that it continues to receive preference over the others.”

This view isn’t uncommon in the south of England, where some feel more closely aligned with their European counterparts than they do with their fellow compatriots just a couple hours north. I wondered if those in France felt the same way, given the country’s better connectivity and the decentralisation of power that the TGV had allegedly brought.

In Paris, I transferred from the Gare du Nord to the Gare de Lyon for the Marseille-bound TGV. The first thing that strikes you about the Paris-Marseille train is the room afforded by its double deck design. The carriage’s public areas – usually considered a mere afterthought – are commodious, with not only the ubiquitous luggage rack but small banquet style sofas and generous staircases upon which some passengers happily while away the hours chatting or reading. The seating too, even in standard class, is plush and well laid out – a far cry from the thinly padded seats and creaking fold-up tables of their UK counterparts.

The bar carriage, too, is a noticeable improvement from not only UK trains, but also the Eurostar. A young professional travelling from Paris to Cannes for the weekend helped to shed more light on the appeal of the French HSR network. For him, the major benefit of the TVG is the opportunity it gives him to escape the city and be in the south of France in just over 3 hours. The regularity of the service is another big plus for passengers, justifying their belief that the service is designed to work around them.

One note of contention, however, was the incremental price rises which are hitting customers who use these services on a regular basis. Despite this, the consensus among most passengers was that travelling via TGV was the only way of making the trip south. But some local trains are a different matter: after arriving at Marseille St Charles, our southbound companion was facing a thirty minute wait and snail-like onward connection along the French coast.

Two days in Provence

In Marseille we met Emmy Arts, the head of international relations at the prestigious Ecole Centrale de Marseille. She told me that, although the city was justified in winning the coveted European Capital of Culture in 2013, it is still experiencing the growing pains associated with its rapid ascendancy.

Much like the contacts in Manchester I had spoken to the day before, she believed that Marseille has always had its own identity – something compounded by its role as a largely unloved salt-of-the-earth place, for years considered culturally backward in comparison to both Paris and Lyon. “The locals love to joke that Marseille faces the sea, turning its back on the rest of France,” she said. Despite being loud, unruly and – by European standards – dirty, it has a real dynamism. It reminds me of Manchester – both cities are more than content with doing their own thing.

Marseille’s old port. Image: Getty.

The arrival of High Speed Rail has been credited with bringing investment and opportunity to the city, with Marseille’s revival acknowledged in the shape of the aforementioned City of Culture gong. In the intervening two years however, things have changed. Despite increased growth and relative political stability, a lack of continued investment has left its ugly mark.

The following morning we walked along the waterfront of the city’s La Joliette district, the defining urban quarter of Marseille’s cultural renaissance. The images depicted on the Photoshopped banners draped across the now deserted street-front block don’t quite match the reality: windows are boarded up, and the noticeable lack of human activity soon becomes disconcerting.

Several high profile international events had been earmarked for Marseille, its bid boosted by its rising stature and good international rail links. But they’d fallen through due to the city’s inability to improve its local transport links.

In stark contrast, a fellow recipient of the City of Culture award (Liverpool, 2008), which I had visited along with Manchester had impressed me with its integrated intercity transport networks, sustained investment and the realisation of a shared vision by its public figures and policymakers.

I’d taken an earlier trip to Liverpool from Manchester, in order to gain a feel of how nearby cities relate to their bigger neighbours. For the same reason, that afternoon, we travelled an hour east along the coast to Toulon, an important naval city and confirmed recipient of a new High Speed Rail connection.

Asking locals if they were aware of this new link, and more importantly what it could mean to them, we spoke with a young family dependent on the train for day trips to nearby cities. “Getting the kids ready, taking the slow train – it means that by the time we arrive we are often limited to what we can do,” they told me. “A faster and more frequent service would be great for us.”

Toulon. Image: Getty.

As with those who we had spoken to on the cross-country trip, we found that cost is never far from people’s minds: constructing a brand new line that local people could not afford to use certainly wouldn’t help sustain the trust built between SNCF and its customers.

In fact, it’s only due to the development of a High Speed Rail network all those years ago that SNCF now finds itself in a position to develop the same technology along regional routes, and offer the option of a much improved service. The French story shows that, properly managed, High Speed Rail can begin to work directly in the interests of local communities.

Lessons learnt

The four day trip had helped answer a few of my questions – but it had also served to raise several more.

On the question of connectivity, I had at times been frustrated by local transport. On the whole, though, I had found it acceptable, despite the way it appreciably slowed down onward journey times in certain cases. Having spoken to those in both Manchester and Marseille who use these networks every day, I found that they recognised the benefits that High Speed Rail could bring – but that for it was direct investment in local transport infrastructure which would have the biggest impact on their quality of life. 

It was a similarly nuanced picture when it came to the issue of rail infrastructure and city regions. Establishing stronger ties with local cities would be a big plus for those residing in both the north of England and the south of France – but the residents of both Manchester and Marseille made clear it should not come at the expense of a distillation of a city’s identity.

That this sentiment should remain so strong even now is testament to the competitive mindset that was bred between neighbouring cities with the onset of the industrial revolution all those years ago. But what was then undoubtedly a catalyst in advancing knowledge and production may now serve to quell both progress and cooperation. Cost again was an issue people cited as critical: yes, they favoured greater integration, but not if it meant further local cuts.

One of SNCF’s double decker TGV trains. Image: Getty.

Finally, people do recognise the need for devolution – but the practical parameters and tangible outputs of it remain largely undefined. Those residing in both Manchester and Marseille – the unofficial “Second Cities” of their respective countries – appear ambivalent about this status. The chancellor wants a Northern Powerhouse to enable the North and South to contribute more equally to the country’s economic growth – but what does this mean in reality?

In Manchester, there’s a perception that the sweeping and sustained local cuts of the last parliament caused widespread havoc. This sits uncomfortably with the government’s new found enthusiasm for shaping the north to the vision of what many consider to be a London-centric political class.

I believe that this may explain the reluctance of people en masse to embrace High Speed Rail. Considered on its own merits, it still remains a critical investment – but only if it is able to be developed and co-exist alongside visionary, collaborative, and above all, responsible policymaking.

As in France, an established High Speed Network would in time create the added impetus for improving local transport networks. If High Speed Rail is built and measures for local infrastructure are not implemented, much of the value that a High Speed network can bring would be lost. And while it cannot be denied that local rail infrastructure in the north of England desperately needs overhauling, only a project like High Speed Rail will bring with it the political clout to ensure that this is carried through.

A project of this size and scope will inevitably invite criticism due to the number of people’s lives it will potentially affect. To this end, in addition to the national campaign, it’ll need the rigour, skill and resolution of city leaders to make the case for the project locally. Once people are able to see the value in a city’s civic assets and infrastructure, they are much more willing to fight for its inception and continued investment.

Yes, High Speed Rail is expensive, it will be slow to deliver and it is, above all, political. But this must be used as an advantage. A better performing mainline railway may or may not in time address the issues that the chancellor identifies; we must ensure local transport networks are developed so that everyone can feel the benefits of this important long-term investment.

Charles Critchell is a young urbanist whose project “Second Cities: Manchester to Marseille” has been supported by The Academy of Urbanism’s Small Grants Scheme.

A public event about the scheme will be held on Monday November 30th at the Academy’s Offices. Click here for more details.  

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