Published: 28 August 2013
When the London to Birmingham Railway (L&BR) was opened in September 1838, it became the UK’s first long distance intercity railway and linked London Euston and Birmingham Curzon Street stations. 175 years on, the same two stations are the subject of a fierce debate as the Government plans to use them as the start and end of the first section of High Speed Two or HS2 as it is better known.
But in 1838 ‘The Penny Magazine’ published an eight page special supplement detailing the newly opened L&BR which operated for a short while over the 48 miles between Euston and Denbigh Hall and then from Rugby to Birmingham. The intermediate section was travelled by express horse-drawn coach, the use of which the L&BR had to pay the operator a levy for each passenger carried. This was perhaps the first example of rail replacement coaches!
The line was opened throughout on September 17 1838 when the intermediate section through Kilsby Tunnel was completed following very serious construction difficulties. These included hitting underground streams and a layer of quicksand which delayed opening the tunnel and the whole length of the line.
Two months ago, the Government revised its estimate of the construction costs of HS2 upwards by £10 billion to £42 billion which brought widespread condemnation. The cost of trains is on top of this figure which is the normal way of accounting in railway projects.
Opponents to the HS2 scheme, The Institute of Economic Affairs, has just published a report called ‘The High Speed Gravy Train’ that suggests the actual cost of the whole HS2 line will double the revised figure and could reach £80 billion. They have suggested that as every householder £3,000 to build the line that it should be shelved. But this cost includes trains and transport add-ons so is not looking just at HS2 construction costs and benefits.
The ‘Javelin’ trains have brought higher rail usage for example on HS1 and changed travelling patterns. This has helped to relieve growing congestion at London’s Victoria station for example, and HS2 could also be expected to do the same at other stations with new services being generated.
Probably more importantly the report has suggested that HS2 could drain funding for other parts of the rail network. Again, there is a precedent for this as when the route between Waterloo and the Channel Tunnel was being upgraded 20 years ago. This was in preparation for Eurostar services to travel at up to 100mph through Kent and this did drain investment away from other parts of the railway, despite claims to the contrary by politicians and the railways at the time.
But the Government has found the funding for a massive investment programme across the UK’s railways so maybe this is scaremongering by those opposed to HS2.
The Campaign for Rural England has also undertaken research into the effect of HS2 and suggest that half a million people will be affected during the construction phase. They also highlight the effects of the line going through nature reserves and historical areas.
Opponents to the line have gratefully accepted these studies and in their wake have caused several high profile politicians who backed HS2 to change their mind over the project and question the value of spending so much money.
But is such a report fantasy or fact? The publication says that costs will rise by 60% to build transport links to HS2 stations and to quell objectors, both political and environmental In historical terms it could be nearer the mark than anyone realises and opponents have again latched on to this report as yet another reason for abandoning the scheme.
But if places such as Lille in France made a success of their high speed rail links, then UK regional locations served by HS2 should also be able to benefit which is why they want to invest more into linking transport infrastructure.
The historical background goes back to the planning and construction of the L&BR from 1832 to 1838 when objectors to the scheme caused expenditure of £72,868 18s 10d. The objectors ranged from canal and turnpike operators who feared that “their interests would be injured by the protected railway”. In 1832 the Parliamentary Powers sought by the railway company were rejected due to opposition but these were overcome in 1833 and the line took five years to fully open.
The construction costs were estimated to be £2.5 million for the 112 mile railway. This equated to £21,756 per mile but by August 1838, the L&BR directors admitted to shareholders that construction had so far cost £4,300,000 and that more was required to complete the job and that by the time it was completed the cost would have doubled.
The L&BR said “Despite having men of the highest talent and experience to form correct estimates of the labour attending works the absence of data furnished by experience gained in conducting similar undertakings!
The Department for Transport said in response that “The construction costs would be £42.6 billion and that the Government was committed to managing the cost within the budget we have set for the project and securing maximum value for money for the taxpayer.”
But former Cabinet Ministers such as Alistair Darling and John Prescott are now speaking against HS2 when originally they were very ‘pro’ the line.
What if the L&BR had never been built and objectors won the day? Would we have today’s railway network? Would we have international trains from the UK to Europe? Only academics would be able to guess the answer but would the West Coast Main Line exist today?
The 175th anniversary of the opening of the L&BR has been commemorated by the publication of “The Full Works” which tracks the history of Wolverton Works built as the engineering base for the L&BR. The 68 page book contains over 100 pictures dating from 1838 to 2013 and includes the 1838 eight page account of travelling the length of the London to Birmingham Railway.
It is available priced £6.95 plus £1.75 P&P (total £8.70) and available from:
Wolverton 175 Book offer
14 Milton Road
Milton Keynes MK15 9AD
Cheques are payable to Mr P Marsh