Thinking about HS2…
Twelve years ago I worked for West Coast Route Modernisation (WCRM) – the programme to increase speed and capacity on the world’s busiest mixed-use railway. Basically, WCRM was about stitching together the messy compromises of a 150-year-old patchwork of railways into a safer, faster and more reliable whole.
Despite overrunning both the budget and the timetable, the complex WCRM programme more or less did the job (although it was not technically possible – due to ballooning costs and technical problems – for trains ever to reach the planned 140mph operation).
I learned a lot about the construction of the original West Coast railway in the 1830s. There are echoes for us today.
Plans to build the line through Northampton were opposed by local landowners, who feared that the influx of navvies and a connection with London would flood the area with undesirable elements. They successfully petitioned for the line to take a different route, bypassing the town.
The result was the 2400 yard-long Kilsby Tunnel. Building the detour meant carving through waterlogged clay: it was expensive (building costs trebled during construction) and delayed the opening of the London to Birmingham railway.
It didn’t take the people of Northampton long to realise that they had cut themselves off from the most important economic and social phenomenon of their age. It would not be until 1881 that the town would gain a direct rail link to London.