Oxford Transport 2065

Walking, cycling, buses, trains and cars have changed little, we just stopped driving when all the parking spaces were taken away.

When looking forward, it can be instructive to look back, and think about what has changed, what hasn’t, and why. In 1965, the principal modes of transport in and serving Oxford were walking, cycling, buses, trains and cars. The technology has improved in a number of respects, but the same basic structure persists. The reason is that the various non-car modes are all pretty well adapted for their respective distance markets, with more equipment and space used at higher speeds for longer distances. The car competes with all modes at all distances, as well as having a near monopoly on suburban and ex-urban journeys above a couple of miles. So while the vehicle technology will continue to evolve, the scope for paradigm-shifting change is limited, and can probably be discounted. No flying cars or jet-packs, sorry.

LetsLiveInOxfordBut transport is more than about vehicles. It is also about the infrastructure which society chooses to provide to support the use of different modes. In 1965, there was substantial likelihood that major new urban motorways and huge car-parks would be built. The government’s Traffic in Towns report had shown (in 1963) that cities would need to be substantially rebuilt if cars were to be accommodated. In 1970 Oxford City Council proposed building a spine motorway along the railway, and a motorway link across the river and through East Oxford to the bottom of Headington Hill (see diagram – from Oxford Civic Society’s “Let’s LIVE in Oxford”, 1970). Many other cities did indeed build such roads.

Instead of building roads, Oxford introduced Park and Ride and bus priority to keep traffic levels within the city broadly stable, despite substantial increases in the number of people travelling. Over time, parking has been reduced in the city centre, and has started to be brought under control at the hospital and university sites in Headington. However, parking has been allowed to increase in Cowley, where there is a major car works, and a couple of business parks close to the ring road. Fairly substantial provision for cycling has been made over the years, with facilities on about 50% of the urban main roads. This proportion is very high by UK standards, but still far from complete.

The third key aspect of transport is the location of housing and jobs. Housing growth has largely been directed at the main towns about 10 miles from Oxford (Banbury, Bicester, Didcot, Witney), with Abingdon and Kidlington also significant. It has suited the districts around Oxford to prevent Oxford expanding into its green belt – they have directed development to their own principal settlements instead. The politics of this is stable – it is unlikely to change. These settlements aren’t large enough to justify rail investment on their own, but three of them have benefited from being on the way to somewhere else, establishing a basic half-hourly train service. The other main settlements support frequent bus services.

Employment has become more dispersed over the last 50 years, and people travel further to get to work, with a lot of cross-commuting. Outside Oxford there has been a substantial shift to commuting by car. Central Oxford remains the largest employment concentration, but Headington has become a major location for hospital and university jobs. On the edge of the city, Cowley is also substantial, with people driving from all over the county. As well as the other main settlements, there is also a major employment concentration near Didcot, split between two business parks at Milton and Harwell, almost entirely accessed by car.

So the overall pattern has been for central Oxford to restrict parking, and switch access to walking, cycling, bus and train. But this has been a long process, with traffic levels remaining much the same. Much of the parking is private, and hard to remove. Something similar might be beginning to happen in Headington, but progress is likely to be slow. Outside the city, and in line with much of the rest of the UK, car use has become predominant, though cycling remains above-average. Housing is fairly well concentrated around existing settlements, but employment is becoming dispersed. The ready availability of employment sites outside the city threatens to undermine the approach that has been taken in Oxford. Contrariwise, the attractiveness of living in Oxford might encourage the other settlements to move away from mass car use.

Oxford’s alternative approach is unlikely to be deflected, and the difficulty of overcoming obstacles is likely to reduce over time. By 2065, parking is likely to have been substantially reduced in the city centre, and reduced by enough in Headington to eliminate congestion. The cycle network will have been completed, the bus lanes removed, and pavements widened. There will still be many who drive to Cowley, but there will be a fast bus link to the station, with connections to the rest of the county, so people will have a choice not to drive. The business parks will have been replaced by housing, with the offices relocated to the edge of the city centre as a result of the workplace parking levy. The buses will all be electric, and run through Queen Street. The referendum for a special tax to build a bus tunnel under Queen Street was lost.

Elsewhere in the county, the pressure on economic, health and carbon grounds to reduce car use eventually bore fruit. Bicester eco-town led to the development of a full cycling network in Bicester, and home delivery of groceries eventually allowed the town-centre car parks to be sold for flats. Didcot developed by expanding west, along the new bus spine routes to Milton Heights and Harwell. Diverting the main road through Milton Park had been a stroke of genius – avoiding the cost of a new railway bridge, giving the buses the straight route along the railway, and opening up the land south of the railway for housing. Didcot now extends all the way to the Harwell site, and more than half of Harwell’s workers now live in Didcot. Congestion on the A34 is a distant memory.

The future of local transport is not really dependent on technology, or even on behaviour. What matters is the politics. For five decades we have known that the car needs to be restrained if life in cities is to be improved. Land-owners have slowed down change, but eventually change will come.

Why can’t a bus … be more like a tram?

Buses could operate like trams, but only if we find an alternative to drivers checking and selling tickets.

The simplest way to make an excellent bus network for Oxford would be to allow two-way bus operation in Queen Street. This is probably what would happen if Oxford had a tram system. There are similar situations in (for example) Basel and Freiburg, and the trams run straight through the city centre without causing too much of a problem. There are also cities like The Hague or Antwerp where the trams run under the main street. This is very expensive (hundreds of millions of pounds), and would be quite hard to justify. But what these cities have in common is that the trams go through the very heart of the city.

So why are buses different? Why are they so horrible that we want to remove them from our city centres? It’s still rare for a bus to be fully-electric, but they are a lot less noisy and smelly than they used to be. Well-driven hybrids, in particular, are hardly a problem at all, when moving. The main difference is the amount of time buses are stopped, to let people get on and off. The occasional bus isn’t a problem, but in a busy city centre you can quickly end up with a wall of buses, destroying the pedestrian feel of the street.

The length of time for the stop is the result of selling and checking tickets. At peak times, it can take five minutes to take on a full load. At less-busy times, two minutes is quite normal. By contrast, a typical tram stop takes between 15 and 30 seconds.

The usual system for checking tickets on trams is to have random inspections. These are never frequent enough to stop widespread fare-dodging, with 25% or more of people travelling without tickets. Clearly it is fairer if everybody pays.

The solution adopted for bus rapid transit in South America has been to create gated stations at the all the bus stops. A simpler version of this could be considered for Oxford. This would start by having someone to sell tickets at the busiest bus stops at the busiest times, then maybe a couple of people to check tickets, so the rear doors can be used for boarding. It would help if all buses had rear doors.


Even so, it wouldn’t be possible to load a full double-decker in less than a minute. The best option then is to split the boarding between two stops, say at Bonn Square and Carfax. Buses would stop at Bonn Square to pick up half a load, then at Carfax to pick up the remainder. This gives more places to catch the bus, and keeps the impact at any location to a minimum. A possible alternative would be to have two stop-positions at one stop. But for this to work efficiently, the buses would need to run in pairs (eg by despatching them in pairs from the railway station).

I think if we seriously focus on improving dwell times, and have multiple credible stops in the city centre, we can run the buses much more like trams, so they have much less impact on the pedestrian environment.

The best arrangement is to run most services from the east through Queen Street (two-way) to the railway station. A few services (mostly the coaches) would still use St Aldates, but there would be many fewer stops (none at the top end), and the pavements could be much wider. Buses from the south would generally run via the new Westgate development and Castle Street to the station. Similarly, buses from the north would run through George Street to the station, reducing the amount of space needed in Magdalen Street, and providing easy interchange with other services.

Excellent BusMap

Small Town Blues

Making small towns into wonderful places to live and work will mostly proceed by improving conditions for walking. Improvements for cycling and public transport are probably an irrelevant distraction.

A few days in Dorchester set me thinking about how small towns could wean themselves off car dependency, and become wonderful places to live – if they wanted to. There are hundreds of small market towns like this in Britain, though they don’t all have quite such a long history.


Dorchester was a Roman town, and is the traditional capital of Dorset, though its population is only about 20,000. The Romans have long gone, replaced by a pedestrianised shopping street, some car parks, an interesting range of Victorian-and-older houses, and some tree-lined walks.

Outside the pedestrianised centre, you soon realise that the car is dominant. Streets are mostly quite narrow, but have a steady flow of traffic, and guardrail and indirect crossings to keep pedestrians in their place. Turn the wrong way, and you’ll find an oversized junction, probably giving access to a car park, or a roundabout built to minimise delay to motorists.

The town is famous as the home of the Victorian poet and novelist, Thomas Hardy. He built himself a house on the outskirts of the town, and rather delightfully had a room just for bicycles, when they were the latest fashion (in the 1890s). The garden is now somewhat spoiled by noise from the bypass. You like to imagine that Thomas Hardy would still be riding his bicycle if he were alive today, but I’m afraid he’d probably have long since built a garage, and taken up driving.

This is very different from an equivalent Dutch town. There would be a dense centre, with an inner ring road built on the former defensive canal. Car parks would be further from the centre. The first suburbs would have been built later, with cycle tracks alongside the main roads into the centre. But the suburbs would be more extensive, reflecting the huge population growth in the Netherlands over the last few decades. There probably wouldn’t be an outer bypass, though there might be a motorway fairly close by. There wouldn’t be a Tesco (or any other large food store) on the bypass. The normal way of getting about town would be by bicycle, though quite a lot of people drive.

We can’t magically convert a British market town into its Dutch equivalent – the urban form, street form and land use structure are completely different. We can’t just look over the North Sea and copy what the Dutch have done. We have to find our own way.

It’s not even clear that the people of Dorchester want to change. Traffic congestion isn’t really a problem, and driving is convenient. Those who don’t have access to a car are at a disadvantage, but that’s probably a minority. There is a bus service that loops around the suburbs once an hour, but it’s almost exclusively used by the elderly. People living outside Dorchester will be even more dependent on the car. So seriously restraining the car is unlikely to be popular.

The small-town Italian model would be to restrict parking in the centre, giving bikes a significant advantage. But it’s unlikely that Dorchester’s residents would be quite so keen to cycle, because the culture has been lost, and the streets have been adapted for the convenience of motorists. Dorchester also has some hills, in stark contrast to the Po Valley.

So if we can’t restrict traffic very much, our only real option is to minimise its impact, by reducing speeds, and giving greater priority to pedestrians. The whole town could be a 20mph zone. Some people will already walk into town, and some others might be persuaded out of their cars if walking wasn’t such an obstacle course. Remove the guardrails, and use Zebra crossings to give pedestrians priority. Not many people will cycle, but simply slowing the traffic will make cycling a bit more tolerable.

In time this should reduce some of the demand for parking, as people walk instead. This might allow some of the most central parking to be converted into amenity space, maybe a new square with shops. Dorchester would become a more pleasant place to stop and walk around, and visitors would stay longer, recommend it more, and return sooner.

In Britain’s market towns, where the level of cycling and bus use is minimal, it’s probably more sensible to focus on improving conditions for pedestrians, gradually reducing the impact of traffic. Shared-space roundabouts, road narrowing, and better pedestrian crossings, like at Poynton in Cheshire, might be the better approach, even though this isn’t particularly cycle-friendly. In small towns, we should focus on pedestrians.

Map © OpenStreetMap contributors

A Cunning Plan

How UK railways improve – by carefully developing what is already there, rather than building miles of new lines.

The West Coast Main Line has dedicated fast lines (shown in red on the map below) for most of the way from London to Crewe, but there is a gap in the Stafford area. Fifteen years ago, the plan was to build a Stafford bypass, taking fast trains past three flat junctions on tight curves, at Colwich, Stafford and Norton Bridge. This consisted of a flyover at Colwich junction, so all fast trains would head towards Stoke, then a new line north of Stafford for trains to switch back to the line to Crewe (shown in yellow). But the economics didn’t stack up.


Instead, what is currently being built is much simpler – a flyover at just one of the three junctions, Norton Bridge (shown in green). Doesn’t this just leave the other two problem junctions unresolved? No – and this is the cunning part.

While ideally the fast trains would have a pair of lines to themselves, this isn’t actually essential unless the railway is close to maximum capacity. You can get a decent capacity for high speed trains just by eliminating conflicting moves. The odd two-track bottleneck is quite tolerable, as long as there are no flat junctions.

This has already been used to good effect between Rugby and Nuneaton. The fast and slow lines are combined in the northbound direction for a few miles, because a motorway bridge was built too narrow. This also, very cleverly, avoided the need for a new flyover at Rugby.

The cunning part of the Norton Bridge project is that the four-track railway between Crewe and Stafford will be paired by route, with services for the Trent Valley using the fast lines, and services for Birmingham using the slow lines. The speed of the slow lines has been increased to 100mph, and there are no intermediate stations, so journey times will be unaffected. This creates a conflict-free path for northbound fast services, increasing capacity. It also means there can be fewer sets of points south of Stafford station, allowing the track to be canted (tilted) for higher speeds.

In terms of existing passenger services, the southbound Trent Valley stopper will use the main line from Norton Bridge to Colwich, stopping at Stafford. Northbound fast services to Stoke will divert via Stafford and Norton Bridge, allowing Colwich to be reconfigured for higher speeds.

Freight is a bit more complicated, but the main requirement for freight is capacity, not speed. To remove the conflict, freight can be diverted away from the Trent Valley, via Penkridge, Willenhall, Walsall, Sutton Park and Water Eaton to Nuneaton.

This is how the conventional railway increases its capacity and speed, by carefully organising slow traffic out of the way, and removing conflicts, leaving a clear route for fast traffic. In effect, the two-track section is turning red.

The next cunning plan will probably be to reconfigure Crewe. The slower services can be routed to use the freight underpasses, though they will need new platforms and signalling. This will allow the constrained junction north of the station to be moved to the south, where there is much more room. This doesn’t need to be a flying junction, because capacity isn’t as tight when most of the trains are stopping, but the speed for Manchester services can be increased to a lot more than the current 20mph.

Map data © OpenStreetMap contributors. Base map is here.

Integrated Transport

The railways should be given the role of coordinating Integrated Transport. Information about buses (and cycling and walking) needs to be considerably improved, so people can readily understand and begin to trust the quality of connecting services.

When I’m going to visit a new city, I look to find out how to get from the station to my destination – be that somebody’s offices, where I’m staying, a conference venue or the city centre. In a small city, I’ll probably just walk. If there’s obvious public transport – a tram or a metro, I’ll use that. It’s usually next to impossible to decipher the buses. If I’m travelling on my own and feeling adventurous, I might look up potential cycle routes. But failing that, I’ll probably resort to a taxi.

Basel All ServicesWhy is it that integrated transport is so good in some countries, but so hopeless in Britain? A large part of it is down to our lack of trams. Tram and metro systems are generally simpler to understand, because the cost of infrastructure limits their complexity, and most routes have a good frequency. There is a strong tradition of diagrammatic mapping that people are used to, and which works well. Because it’s a diagrammatic map, you do then have to go to the effort of finding your station/stop on a street map, but the diagrammatic map inspires confidence, and makes that worthwhile. Here’s an example from Basel (there’s an even simpler version which just has the coloured tram lines, and leaves out the buses).

LuxembourgBusMapBus maps are generally more complicated. The norm in the UK is to use a different colour for each route in the suburbs, in an attempt to mimic metro maps, but to give up in the city centre. Buses often run in complicated loops in the centre, and if you have one colour per bus route, you would end up with multiple parallel lines, and an unintelligible tangle. Mostly, this type of map never sees the light of day, but here’s an example from Luxembourg.

Oxford Smart Zone MapThe best you can usually hope for in the UK is a central street map showing the stops, and a guide which lists the stops you can use for each destination. There might be another list that tells you how frequent each service is, but not how frequent they are in combination. You can work it out if you need to, but most people will have given up by then. Sometimes the city centre is just a mystery, like in Oxford.

paddingtonIf I’m visiting a city, I want to know whether there’s a frequent service from near at hand to roughly where I want to go. British bus maps are mostly useless for this purpose. The best in the UK are TfL’s spider maps, which are produced individually for each small area, and rely on the fact that most services are high-frequency and planned as a system. Even these maps resort to destination lists and stop codes, so take a bit of deciphering. Here’s an example for the area around Paddington.

An alternative approach is to treat buses like low-frequency transport, and provide a journey planner. This will give you a list of departures, but it doesn’t give you a feel for how good the service is. It might tell you there’s a journey every few minutes, but they might take different routes, or involve changing in different places. The great thing about a map is that you can see this straight away, not have to decipher it from a list.

BusMap_150_CentrePlusI’ve been developing a solution for my Oxford bus map, which is to use a small range of colours to show the routes that buses take in the centre. There are usually only a few distinct routes through the centre, which then spread out in the suburbs. I’ve limited the map to the routes taken by higher-frequency services, to keep it reasonably simple. Lower frequency branches in the suburbs are shown as dashed lines, to give a clear visual indication of where the quality drops. In this way, the central map blends seamlessly into the whole-city map, so it can be zoomable, and overlaid on a street map.

Why can’t we get good information already? Well mainly because the private bus operators are focused on selling services from the suburbs to the centre, not on providing a service that works for visitors. Some operators provide excellent information, others little more than a printout of a spreadsheet. The councils have responsibility for public transport in general, but are very patchy in the information they offer. Mostly they have subscribed to providing journey planners to discharge their basic responsibility, and left the private operators to provide further information.

This is why I think the responsibility for Integrated Transport needs to be formally given to the railway. The railway already takes on part of the responsibility, but it’s still rather patchy. The railway companies are the key beneficiaries of good integrated transport – they are the ones that get the income for the majority of the journey. So the railways are best placed to make a system that works well for visitors.

Integrated transport is mostly about information. In an ideal world, the bus companies would be improving their connecting services, and the local authorities would be improving conditions for cycling and walking. But for the moment, it is mostly a matter of providing the information, good and bad, and letting travellers choose accordingly. When we can easily see the good examples, there will be more incentive for improvements to be made.

In recent years, there’s been a lot of enthusiasm for providing bike parking and bike hire. In countries like the Netherlands, there are huge cycle parking facilities at stations, and the two modes definitely complement one-another: 40% of train trips in the Netherlands are combined with cycling. The railways certainly have an interest in providing cycle parking and cycle hire, because there is never going to be enough space for commuters to take their bikes on the train. So this is a significant part of the market, and it does need to be provided for. But unless the conditions for cycling in our cities improve dramatically, it’s hard to see cycling becoming a major choice for visitors.

I think the emphasis needs to shift to promoting walking and local public transport. The NationalRail website needs to be much clearer about providing onward travel information, starting with walking. There should be a link to a zoomable street map for each station, perhaps as an icon next to the arrival and departure station, as on the Swiss Railways site.

Reading Station PosterAt the moment there is a link about three levels down which takes you to a pdf of the station information poster. While it’s good that these posters have been produced, they are unwieldy and a long way from best practice. Outside London and the major cities, the posters are very basic (in London and the major cities, they use TfL or PTE maps, which are slightly better, but still limited). The maps don’t give you any feel for what the city is like – the cartography is minimalist, and the cycle and walking routes seem to be almost random. They don’t really tell you whether this is the sort of station where you walk straight out into the city centre, or whether cycling is fairly safe, let alone where buses run.

Reading OSMA proper zoomable street map would at least give you a feel for what the area around the station is like: are there major roads to cross, do you have to walk along a main road or cross at a major junction to get into the centre? Is there a pedestrianised area and shops close by, or is it industrial? Open Street Map already gives a good impression of this, though it could be improved (it doesn’t show pedestrian crossings, for instance).

In the same way, you could have a map focused on cycling – one that shows where the routes are (not just odd bits of cycle path), whether there’s any provision on main roads, and whether you can cycle in the pedestrianised area. There can also be links giving more information on cycle hire and how it works.

The biggest challenge is to map the central bus services, but that’s not impossible, as I have shown. Some of the TfL and PTE maps are pretty good, though they are often focused on taking you off to the suburbs, rather than getting about the centre. And of course, every map is different. There needs to be a consistent zoomable map, showing clearly where services run in the centre.

In the UK, I think the starting point is to make the railways responsible for providing good consistent readily-accessible information. We have the technology; all we need is an informed customer.

Limiting Traffic

You can get a long way towards making a city a wonderful place to live and work, by limiting the level of traffic. If you limit traffic around the city centre, you don’t need much cycle infrastructure.

The guidebook wasn’t encouraging – “travellers are scarce enough to attract a few stares”, but it turns out that Piacenza (forty minutes south of Milan) was a revelation: it has a huge everyday cycling culture. It’s hard to tell, but I’d say a higher level of cycling than Oxford. It was much the same in Parma (twice the size and half an hour further south), but with the added bonus of trolleybuses.

Clearly, from the age of the bikes, and the cyclists, this cycling culture has been there for a while: but how have they stopped traffic from taking over? In the centre there are a few pedestrian-only streets, where cyclists are probably officially banned, not that that seems to stop them. Around that is one of the newfangled traffic-limited zones (ZTL), with access confined to residents and deliveries between 0800 and 1900.

Outside the ZTL, there were no formal restrictions, but traffic was only moderate (I’d estimate somewhere between 5000 and 10000 motor vehicles per day), and speeds were reasonable (30-40 km/h). There were some shared-use pavements, but most cycling was on the road (even the old ladies). Junctions were often mid-sized roundabouts (25-30m diameter, with an island) – these have apparently been installed over the last few years, in place of traffic lights, but cyclists seemed to be muddling through them without too much difficulty. Further out, the roads were wider, traffic faster, and cycling was less common.

One major difference with British cities is that residential density is much higher, with apartments being the norm, buildings close to the street, and almost no gardens. This goes a fair way to explaining why car use has not become dominant – a lot of trips will be very short. The availability of good alternatives to driving will have made it easier to impose restrictions in the centre. The enclosed feel to the streets will also have kept car speeds reasonable, even without formal speed limits.

So what lessons are there for Britain? This approach is more natural for denser cities, with the urban form and street form doing much of the work for you. But the structure of progressive tightening of restrictions and traffic speed towards the centre could be reproduced in Britain. Perhaps the two key measures are the restriction on commuter and visitor parking in the area around the centre, and the low speed and urban feel of the inner ring road. This is quite different to the dual-carriageway ring road, high-speed roundabouts, and multi-storey car parks that are the norm in Britain.

For Oxford the key lesson is the value in restricting commuter parking. This would limit traffic so that junctions like The Plain and Frideswide Square could be more cycle and pedestrian-friendly. Visitor parking has long been restricted by price, though there is still too much of it, too close in (especially Broad Street). But we have struggled to limit commuter parking. There are thousands of parking places on private land, with the University and Colleges being the main culprits. We probably can’t create Italian-style limited traffic zones, but we could use the threat of a punitive Workplace Parking Levy – say £1000/year – to get employers to reduce parking spaces. There are comprehensive public transport services into the city centre; hardly anyone really needs to drive.

Despite the difference in residential density, I think there’s a lot to be learned from places like Piacenza. They show how it is possible to restrict the car and provide for the alternatives without having to comprehensively rebuild every street. They show how things can evolve and improve. I’m always willing to go back and investigate some more…

Think Like A Pedestrian

For twenty years and more, cities like York and Oxford have had a transport hierarchy that puts pedestrians first. For those who manage not to be entirely obsessed with bikes or public transport, this idea that pedestrians have highest priority is pretty much accepted without question. But it isn’t clear what that means in practice.

Over the years, I’ve seen several attempts to write a Walking Strategy, mostly trying to fill the gap next to the Cycling Strategy. Sometimes the language is copied, with talk of Core Pedestrian Route Networks. I often hear people trying to promote walking, with lots of talk of healthy physical exercise. Some people even encourage you to bribe yourself, with glorified calorie counters earning mince pies or ice creams. All of this seems to rather miss the point.

I think the problem is trying to think of walking in isolation, in much the same way as providing for other modes has become stuck in silos. There really are things that can be done to promote walking – I’d highlight raised desire-line crossings of side roads and short-response pedestrian crossings – but they are only addressing walking in isolation.

The wider issue is whether a street is the sort of place where people want to walk. Are there places to go? Are they within easy walking distance? Are there other people around? Is the traffic oppressive? Are people on bikes a threat? Are enough people being coerced out of their cars?

In recent years, I’ve seen more talk of place-making. This is the idea that improvements to the physical form of the street can turn them into attractive places where people want to linger. While these are often great, and look wonderful, you do wonder whether you are just being taken for a ride by fancy-paving salesmen. There are an awful lot of streets that are unlikely ever to get such a treatment, so again it doesn’t feel like a real solution. Plain old tarmac is just fine if you’ve got people: the trick is getting the people.

I think we need to break out of this idea of treating each mode in isolation, and promoting the ones we prefer. City streets are a single system, and you can’t treat one aspect in isolation. Instead, we need to refocus on disadvantaged user groups – such as pedestrians – and ask what they want to happen to the system as a whole.

So, for instance, pedestrians might want more-frequent bus services, with better connections – because actually they’d rather not walk everywhere. They might want good cycle facilities on the road, so that people on bikes don’t threaten them, and maybe they’ll try it for themselves one day. They might want the traffic to slow down, or be stopped from driving through the back streets. They might want lots of zebra crossings, so they can enjoy stopping the traffic, and not have to wait in the fumes or the heat or the rain. They might want the parking moved a bit further away, so drivers don’t hog all the space by the entrance. They might want there to be less traffic.

But pedestrians won’t want to stop the city functioning altogether. They’ll still want things delivered, still want disabled access, still want reasonable access by anybody really, just as long as the cars don’t take over.

I think it’s time we learned to think like pedestrians.

Railway Boundaries

Whether trains are run by public or private companies, most services will be specified by government and organised by geographical area. But where should the boundaries be?

There’s often a tendency to run the long-distance services separately, because they are less dependent on public subsidy. Arguably, long-distance and local services need a different style of management, and the conventional wisdom was that it would be hard for one company to do both. But having separate companies means additional interfaces, unresolved conflicts, bigger meetings, and meetings instead of phone calls. Alternatively, it might be better if companies were small and focused: they certainly seem to perform better, especially if they are self-contained.

Since privatisation, the boundaries between franchises have changed. Some franchises have been combined to make for a single large operator in a region – creating Greater Western and Anglia. A franchise for Wales was created, to match the political geography, and Central Trains was split up because it was sprawling, unfocused, and performing badly. The local services in the north east were combined with those in the north west, but Transpennine was separated out.

Organising services by region seems to be effective. There doesn’t seem to any real problem with combining local and long-distance services. Nobody seems to place any great value on franchises competing directly with each other. So for a lot of the country, the question is pretty much settled, from Anglia clockwise around London to Chiltern, plus Wales, Merseyrail and Scotland.

But the organisation of services in the rest of the country is unresolved. This comprises the services currently run by East Coast, Northern, Transpennine, East Midlands, West Coast, CrossCountry, and London Midland. The perennial problem is the local services, which require substantial subsidy. It makes sense to coordinate them with the mainline services, to maximise connecting revenue, but it also makes sense to focus on local journeys into the major cities, and follow a regional political agenda. Maybe one day the cities will restrict car traffic, reducing the subsidy required.

One key problem is Birmingham, where CrossCountry and London Midland are both significant operators. I would suggest transferring the West Midlands local services to CrossCountry, so that there is one main operator. The remaining London Midland services would then transfer to West Coast, so there’s one main operator for all the services into Euston.

In the North, despite a certain amount of political cooperation, the two sides of the Pennines are really quite separate. I think it makes more sense to combine the local services around Manchester with West Coast, and the local services in Yorkshire with East Coast.

You’d then end up with four franchises: West Coast based in Manchester, East Coast based in York, East Midlands based in Derby and CrossCountry based in Birmingham.

There are a number of options with Transpennine services. In some ways it makes sense running services for long distances. Passengers make all sorts of overlapping journeys, and through-running reduces the need for interchange. But it adds to operational complexity – trains have to be fuelled and cleaned away from their home depot, and there have to be small driver and conductor depots. And the further you run, the more chance of a delay. This isn’t a sensible way to operate low-margin low-frequency services.

It’s better to split operations at natural thresholds, either places where there is little traffic, or where almost everybody changes trains anyway. Manchester provides a natural hub, so I think it is better to split services there, with East Coast providing the main services across the Pennines, and down to Nottingham. East Midlands would then concentrate on covering the east-west flows further south.

What people want from the railways is a well-managed public service. A proliferation of operators doesn’t help, and we should move to a situation where each region has one main operator, with Network Rail organised in the same way.

The map shows a possible split.

Map data © OpenStreetMap contributors. Base map is OpenStreetMap Transport layer.

Birmingham New Street

Birmingham New Street is the hub of the national rail network. It has long been a dark and confusing place, buried under a shopping centre, with dim lighting and lots of blank walls that all look the same. But a glance up at the departure board always gave me that “where shall we go today” feeling, and suddenly the world seemed a brighter place.

It was hard to recommend New Street as a place to change between trains, so the railway made a virtue of running through services. Which is a pity, because sitting in a train in the bowels of the station is hardly the best way to see Birmingham. In fact, unlike many cities, the station is in the heart of the city centre – in two minutes you could be on the main shopping street, or sunning yourself in Victoria Square.

This comprehensive pattern of through workings comes at a cost. It means that services are a bit irregular, don’t depart from consistent platforms, and are prone to delay. In fact, small delays are endemic. With some trains running head on, some reversing, and some terminating, they inevitably get in each other’s way. The reversals in the high-numbered platforms, in particular, have never really worked.

New Street is currently being rebuilt, with a huge atrium to let in the light. It will be a much more pleasant place to change. At platform level it will be brighter, though still pretty disorientating. But the main improvement is that there will be a large central concourse, big enough to let you get your bearings, rather than just follow the signs.

We should take this opportunity to simplify the pattern of services. Instead of alternating between head-on and reversing, the main CrossCountry services would all run head-on. This will allow departure platforms to be standardised, and substantially reduce delays. It will inevitably force a few people to change who did not have to before, but the overall effect should be substantially positive.

All services from Reading would run to Manchester, and all services from Bristol would run to Sheffield. This is mostly just a replatforming exercise, but it would mean the service to Reading leaving slightly later (as it often does anyway).

The great virtue of simplifying the service pattern is that it will demystify New Street. The staff will soon get used to the idea, and be able to tell you which platform you need without a second thought. But it will also make it a lot easier for everybody to understand. Rail travel shouldn’t be a great mystery. It should be as easy as ABC.

The platforms would be roughly as follows:

High Speed or not High Speed

High speed rail has its benefits, but we don’t have to build it all straight away: use high speed to enhance the existing rail system, not replace it.

Normally, it’s a good idea to separate fast and slow railway services. There are multiple intermediate stops on almost all corridors, so you need four tracks to run fast services. Approaching London, you ideally need six tracks, so the urban stopping service is separate. That’s the situation on the West Coast Main Line – six tracks to Watford, four tracks (mostly) to Crewe.

Around London, many of the main lines were four-tracked decades ago, in the days when there were far more freight trains. This typically extends beyond the limit of outer commuter services, allowing the fast trains a clear run. This is why there hasn’t been the pressure to build high-speed lines – we already have an extensive network of fast lines.

With the exception of Kent (where there had never been much four-tracking), the sensible option has been to increase linespeeds, build flyovers, and infill gaps in the four-track network.

And so it might continue if it weren’t for Milton Keynes.

The two largest rail markets in Britain are London to Manchester and London to Birmingham. The number of people wanting to travel would justify half-hourly non-stop services, but the infrastructure does not allow this. At the London end the fast lines are getting close to capacity. We are getting to the point where either everything has to stop at Milton Keynes, or nothing.

Approaching Birmingham and Manchester, there are sections of two-track railway, and the fast services have to run between stoppers. To make this fit, the fast services have to stop a couple of times. These extra stops do mean that there are more services to Birmingham/Manchester, and the high frequency partly compensates for the loss of speed, but there isn’t much value running more than three trains an hour.

With Milton Keynes planned to expand, the simplest option is to stop everything at Milton Keynes, in much the same way as everything out of Paddington stops at Reading. This slows all the fast trains by about five minutes. So the high speed line isn’t really about solving a capacity problem, it’s more that the capacity problem reduces speed, making a high speed line more worthwhile. Stopping everything at Milton Keynes would probably deliver enough capacity for a few years, but it wouldn’t take much more growth before something further would be required.

The engineers have identified a route for a new line, and have ended up proposing a tunnel almost all the way from central London to Amersham – about 40km. To justify the cost of this, the route to Birmingham and Manchester needs to be ultra-fast throughout, and the line needs to be full from the outset, with branches to anywhere big enough to fill a train. This intensity of service also requires a major expansion of Euston station, demolishing several blocks of social housing in the process.

The expensive parts of the high speed line are the new terminal stations and the tunnelling into the cities. The French typically don’t do either of these – they concentrate on building new lines between cities. Now that we’ve identified just how expensive the full scheme would be, I think it’s time to consider intermediate options that leaves the most expensive sections to later.

Looking at the problem incrementally, the starting point is finding a way to serve Milton Keynes using the slow lines. There is plenty of spare capacity on the slow lines, it’s just that the intermediate stops get in the way of running fast services. The incremental solution is therefore to provide a way for fast services to overtake slow ones. The sensible place to do this is on the stretch between Kings Langley and Tring, where there are five stops fairly close together, and a major road to build alongside.

Six-tracking between Kings Langley and Tring would allow fast services to run on the slow lines to serve Milton Keynes and Northampton. Unfortunately, the slow lines through Northampton aren’t fast enough to provide a good alternative for destinations further north (eg Euston-Rugby, or Milton Keynes-Birmingham). The loop through Northampton is two miles longer, generally has a lower speed (75mph), and a severe restriction through Northampton (30mph). It might be possible to upgrade the existing line, but it wouldn’t be cheap. To provide for fast services to destinations further north, it would probably be necessary to build a new line bypassing Northampton.

The approach to Birmingham is two-track from Rugby, and completely full with a mix of fast and stopping services between Coventry and Birmingham. Running more services would require four-tracking or building a parallel line for at least some of the route.

So, catering for growth will need additional infrastructure at several points along the route. Joining these up and building a completely new line is clearly a sensible alternative, especially if it means that fast trains can then go even faster. This pretty much makes the case for a new line from the outskirts of London to the outskirts of Birmingham (eg Kings Langley to Berkswell).

The HS2 scheme for the Birmingham approach is proving to be quite complicated and expensive, having to slot between canals, railways and motorways. Speeds cannot be particularly high, since the trains are about to stop, and there is little advantage compared to the existing (100mph) line. It would be more effective to four-track the existing line, and provide capacity for other fast services as well. There is also, broadly, enough capacity at Birmingham New Street, assuming fast trains don’t get any longer than at the moment (260m), and slow services run through, rather than terminating.

The HS2 scheme for rejoining the West Coast Main Line is to head north from Berkswell, rejoining beyond Lichfield. This is duplicating the existing 125mph four-track route through the Trent Valley. It would be substantially shorter to diverge further south, and rejoin near Rugby.

The current works at Norton Bridge are essentially completing the separation of the fast lines as far as Crewe. When Crewe is resignalled in the next few years, it’s likely that linespeeds through the station will be increased for trains that don’t stop, particularly for those going to Manchester.

While it’s then two-track to Stockport, it’s fast, and not too many other services to get in the way. Through Stockport it’s slow, but there are four tracks, and potential to dedicate two of them to fast services. One possibility would be starting the four-tracking at Cheadle Hulme, eliminating the junction, and then providing a flyover just south of Stockport to take the slow services over to the west side without conflict. This would allow linespeeds to be increased, and provide enough capacity for some fast services to run non-stop.

At Manchester Piccadilly, the new platforms on the through lines will provide capacity for more terminating services in the main station. Further platforms can be constructed on the east side of the station, when they become necessary.

So, there is a coherent package of improvements that can provide substantial new capacity, and faster journey times, without the expense of tunnelling into London, Birmingham and Manchester, and without wholesale redevelopment of stations. The full HS2 package would provide even more speed and capacity, but it’s not at all clear that this is required immediately. Better to do the partial scheme first.

In a similar way, services to Leeds and Sheffield can be improved incrementally. The key bottleneck is south of Hitchin, where there are too many outer-suburban services on the main line. One possibility is to bypass the bottleneck, by using the fast lines out of St Pancras to Bedford, and then a new line alongside the A421 to St Neots. This would provide enough capacity to run additional trains non-stop to Leeds, and to run services via the East Coast to Sheffield. Unfortunately, there is a shortage of platforms at St Pancras, but it should be possible to create a link to the St Pancras lines from Kings Cross, at the north end of the railway lands.

Rather than build an all-new high speed line, I think a greater improvement can be made by selective new build and four-tracking more of what we already have. That way the benefits will be felt more widely, and the new capacity will be put to good use, rather than duplicating what we already have. In a small country, it’s the ability to run non-stop that makes the critical difference to speed.

The map shows the existing four-track railways (in yellow), the suggested high-speed lines (in red), the suggested four-tracking on the approach to Birmingham and Manchester (in green), and the suggested link between the Midland and East Coast main lines (in blue).


Map data © OpenStreetMap contributors. Base map is OpenStreetMap Transport layer.