Life on the Line
by Bill Hartley
Railways are back in the news with the HS2 project under fresh scrutiny, due to the cost estimate having risen to an eye watering level. The latest figure is about three times what Britain spends annually on defence. But Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham is warning of dire political consequences should the project be curtailed at Birmingham.
Whilst moving from north to south in Britain isn’t too bad, the real area of neglect lies east to west. On a journey along the Trans Pennine route, say from Leeds to Liverpool, crumbling Victoriana carry state of the art rolling stock. How the two have merged and survived is remarkable. How much longer it can continue without substantial investment is questionable.
The line is used in some unusual ways. Outside peak periods a new kind of traveller took to the tracks. The story began many years ago at Stalybridge in Greater Manchester. The station has an independently run buffet bar free from the corporate awfulness of the standard railway franchise and they sell proper beer. Word got round and students crossing the Pennines began to stop off for a ‘quick drink’.
It’s easy to imagine where this led and discovering that the last train had gone, the bar seems to have had no option than to let drinkers bed down for the night. This was extended to occasions when travellers were trapped by a Pennine snow storm which can cause an already creaking network to grind to a halt.
Stalybridge started the trend and now, at stations all the way from York to Liverpool, it is possible to stop off for some decent beer. Some of the earliest and keenest patrons weren’t just casual drinkers. The pioneers, so to speak, were described by an acquaintance of mine as ‘Beer Spotters’. They can be found huddled together in railway bars along the line with their tablets and lap tops, recording impressions of some obscure beer. For a type of male of a certain age it seems to be the dream combination: beer and railways. As is so often the case when alcohol is involved, what started off as a harmless activity for a minority soon moved to a different level. A recent television programme featured what has now become known as the ‘Ale Trail’. If what the programme showed us was a good example, then maintaining punctuality of train services may become a problem. One driver interviewed whilst sitting in his cab, mentioned the need not to set off until he was sure no drunks had fallen onto the tracks.
Leeds Station is described as the busiest transport hub in the North of England. There used to be two stations in the city. However, they thought that one was enough and despite yet another upgrade in 2002 it still isn’t. Sitting on a train waiting for a platform to become available is a regular feature here. The other station was closed in the sixties and the city has been at a disadvantage ever since. As they head west, travellers can still see a forlorn and abandoned viaduct leading nowhere. It has been crumbling for decades whilst the city decides what to do with it. The latest idea is an elevated footpath, which might be a reliable way of getting into the city, though perhaps putting down some track would be better. The viaduct is an early harbinger of increasing decline as the line continues to the old mill town of Morley. Here, the station is described by one guide as ‘a grim station hidden in a ditch’. Some deep cuttings had to be hewn through the gritstone in these parts and are a lasting monument to the energy of the Victorian navvy. These days though they are a fly tipper’s paradise, with household detritus strewn down the steep sides; a profoundly depressing symbol of decay which doesn’t seem to interest Railtrack.
Yet the traveller can speed past these eyesores aboard the latest ‘Nova’ trains. These are fast, quiet and comfortable, running smoothly along a route laid down in the 1840s. It is remarkable how the railway industry has found ways to engineer 21st century performance out of 19th century infrastructure. Railtrack says it is awaiting the go ahead from the Department of Transport for a £3 billion upgrade of the route, though this equals only £23,000 per mile, which seems hardly enough to end years of decay and under investment.
As the line climbs up the Colne Valley out of Huddersfield it brings a sense of what things used to be like. To get beneath the Pennines, railway and canal come together before entering their separate tunnels. In fact there are three railway tunnels at Standedge two of which are abandoned, empty symbols of the additional capacity which lies dormant. Although supposedly sealed off the tunnels have proved irresistible to adventurous visitors. There is a video on YouTube featuring these unofficial explorers wandering through the darkness six hundred feet underground. The tunnels are interconnected making it easier to dodge the trains as they pass through the working tunnel. On the moors, streams were diverted to maintain ventilation in the tunnels, via a spray of water used to circulate the air. Despite having had no maintenance for decades the water channels continue to operate.
Beyond Stalybridge and its famous buffet bar the line approaches Manchester. Again there are more signs of abandonment and decay. Tracts of dense birch woodland have grown up amongst rusting marshalling yards. The humble birch tree is a great coloniser of brownfield sites and they can be found occupying spaces between railway sleepers. Peering through the trees as the train passes a whole dormant infrastructure can be glimpsed, gradually being reclaimed by nature. Inevitably, the fly tipper takes advantage of this no-man’s land between the local authority and Railtrack. This is in contrast to Manchester’s Victoria Station. Following an upgrade the station now brings together the railway and the cities’ Metrolink trams, showing how the line can be turned to new uses.
Outside the city the route follows the line of the Liverpool to Manchester railway. ‘The Great Railway Experiment’ as The Times called it still functions and is only a decade away from the 200th anniversary of its opening. Or at least it did up to a day in 2017 when a wall collapsed at Edge Hill on the outskirts of Liverpool, depositing about 200 tons of rubble on the track. There was a picture in the Liverpool Echo showing engineers inspecting the damage. Next to them was a collection of fly tipped washing machines. The deep cuttings which take the line into the city are another symbol of neglect, with vegetation growing precariously out of the walls. It is quite a contrast to emerge from a dark cutting into Lime Street Station, the world’s oldest railway terminus. A brilliant job has been done upgrading the station but essentially this is the story of the line: good in places with awful bits in between.
William Hartley is a former Deputy Governor in HM Prison Service