Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
A massive new commuter rail project is stoking centuries-old resentment in Britain’s north-south divide.
On Monday morning, the U.K. government gave the green light to a massive expansion of London’s regional train network, approving a new multi-terminus line called Crossrail 2 that will reach into the city’s northern and southern exurbs.
For commuters in and around London, this is a cause for celebration: Estimated at $42 billion, this part-public, part-private project could relieve pressure on London’s overtaxed Tube and Overground systems when it enters service in 2033, improving journey times and train capacity across the region. But look farther north and the public response is striking: many people are downright disgusted.
Why? Because the promise comes just days after the same government announced that it was scrapping plans to electrify some vital railway lines in England’s northern cities. Electrification promised a package of improvements for these commuters that their southern counterparts might take for granted: Compared to diesel, electric trains are generally faster (thanks to smoother acceleration and braking), quieter, require less maintenance, include more seats, and have lower carbon emissions. To people who live north of the London region, the decision to forego full electrification appears to be another installment of a centuries-long history of London favoritism by the powers that be, one that sees the north passed over time and again.
In defense of the new London project, Britain’s transit expenditure should be geographically asymmetrical. The great majority of Britain’s rail passengers are concentrated in southeast England. Out of Britain’s 1.7 billion rail journeys in the 12 months before May 2016, 1.2 billion took place in London and the southeast. The regional system is wheezing under this pressure, which will only increase as the population grows. Some of this pressure should be relieved by Crossrail 1, the east-west precursor to Crossrail 2 that is due to open fully in 2019—but that only tackles the problem along one axis.
This isn’t solely about suburban commuters, either. Inner-city dwellers should also benefit from the new link when Crossrail 2 enables many London commuters to reach their workplace without having to transfer to the Tube system, greatly alleviating pressure there, too. The system’s promoters reckon that the new link could increase Central London’s transit capacity by 90,000 passengers an hour, a rise of 10 percent. At an estimated cost of £27 billion to £32 billion (roughly $35 billion to $42 billion), this is no mere vanity project.
And yet for northerners, the news could hardly come at a worse time. Many are still reeling from Sunday’s announcement that the government will dramatically water down plans to electrify the cross-country line from Liverpool to Newcastle. This route, which passes through important major cities including Manchester, Leeds, and York, is subject to delays and slow journey times that could be improved with electrification—delays that might arguably be less tolerated on a line that connected these cities with London, instead of each other. Funding is still going ahead, after all, for HS2, an upcoming high-speed link connecting Manchester and Leeds with London (but not each other). While construction is scheduled to begin this year, the project remains deeply controversial because of the number of house demolitions that would be needed to clear its path.
The busy west-to-east Manchester-to-Leeds stretch of the Liverpool-Newcastle line won’t be electrified, meanwhile, because doing so is ”very difficult,” according to Transportation Secretary Chris Grayling. Instead, the corridor will continue to rely on bi-mode trains whose engines can switch between diesel and overhead cable electricity as a power source, depending on what’s available.
With metro area populations of 2.55 million and 2.3 million around Manchester and Leeds respectively, it can’t be said that this stretch of line is some irrelevant backwater. That a fully electrified service between Britain’s third and fourth largest metro areas is deemed too complicated plays all too easily into northern resentment over what those residents see as the U.K. government’s skewed priorities, which habitually favor centers of power in the south over the interests of England’s north, as well as Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
Many American readers will recognize these north-south tensions, even if they aren’t aware of it. They form much of the dramatic backbone of “Game of Thrones,” whose Stark-versus-Lannister stand-off is explicitly modeled on England’s north-south divide, right down to the associations of southernness with sophisticated deviance and the north with honesty and mud. It’s a caricature, of course—most southerners aren’t schemers dining nightly on dormice in honey, and you don’t have to travel far in the north to find people who are wealthy or snobbish.
The potential users of Crossrail 2 aren’t cosseted plutocrats guzzling the lion’s share of Britain’s infrastructure cash, either. They’re largely weary straphangers who have moved where the jobs are, and who might also like the idea of moving out to somewhere relatively affordable without having to stand for the whole train ride home.
Even if the closeness of the two announcements forces a juxtaposition, money hasn’t necessarily been taken directly from one project to feed the other. The decision could plausibly be down to cashflow issues. Extensive northern electrification would require money now, while Crossrail 2’s construction would probably not begin until at least 2020. Still, when Britain’s government simultaneously offers billions to tunnel through the southeast and then, almost in the same breath, says it’s too much trouble to plug the north’s railway into the grid, something—at the very least in communication—has gone awry.