The original HS2

The London and Birmingham Railway, opened in 1838, was the Victorian equivalent of HS2. In fact, it was far more transformative than its twenty-first century successor – horses, carts, carriages and canals gave way to steam powered locomotion at speeds that radically changed the British economy, society and people. This engineering wonder heralded the start of the modern age and was built in less than five years.

Last week, the government announced its proposed route for the new high speed railway link north of London. The line will split into a Y shape, with the western spur heading through Crewe, Manchester Airport and ending up in Manchester. The eastern side will stop at an East Midlands parkway (to serve Derby and Nottingham), Sheffield’s Meadowhall shopping centre (to the chagrin of Sheffield City Council and its Chamber of Commerce) and Leeds.

Construction of the first stage of High Speed Two (“HS2”) from London to Birmingham will start in 2017 and open in 2026. The second phase, as outlined above, is intended for completion in 2032. Britain will therefore have the start of a high-speed rail network just in time for the 200th anniversary of regular passenger railway services heralded by the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830.

The construction timeline begs comparisons with its forebear, the London and Birmingham Railway. Using a legion of navvies, equipped with nothing more advanced than shovels, picks and hammers, the London and Birmingham Railway was completed in fives years. Royal assent to the Act providing for the railway was granted in 1833 and the line opened for business in 1838.

It was a monumental endeavour that awed contemporary observers. One of the line’s engineers proclaimed it, with justifiable pride, as: “the greatest public work ever executed either in ancient or modern times”. The railway promoters triumphed in the revelation that building the line shifted considerably more rocks than construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza.

Supporters of HS2 flag the reduction in journey times. The length of time to get from London to Birmingham will be reduced from 1 hour and 24 minutes (the standard journey time – there is one service that completes the journey in 1 hour and 12 minutes) to just 49 minutes. This is impressive, but hardly comparable to the step-change brought by the London and Birmingham Railway.

An uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous stagecoach journey of a whole day was replaced by the relative comfort (especially in first class) of a 6-hour railway journey. The journey time was soon reduced once more powerful locomotives were available. The initial fares look pretty similar to today’s, once inflation is accounted for: a one way journey would set you back £1 10s (or £100 adjusted for inflation) in first class or £1 (£67) in second class.

It was a transformative technology, changing the way people lived, worked, communicated and thought about the world. Within years, people who had thought a journey to the county town was a trek would be happily cross the island.

This line was also intended to become an integral part of a national network – it would meet the Grand Junction to run through Staffordshire and then join the Liverpool and Manchester at a junction near Warrington.

How was the London and Birmingham Railway able to be built so quickly? There are various factors that no longer apply: an abundance of cheap labour, considerably less developed countryside to build over and no planning system or inquiries. At its peak, the railway had 20,000 workers shovelling, blasting and building.

But one of the chief factors, especially in London, was a cavalier disregard for the impact on the urban poor and historic places, a fact best described by two cultural giants. When the Great Northern Railway forged through St Pancras Churchyard, a young Thomas Hardy was tasked with removing gravestones and exhuming bodies. He wrote a poem, The Levelled Churchyard, which hints at the tumult and desecration amidst the sacred space (this is just the first three stanzas – the rest can be read by following the link):

““O passenger, pray list and catch

Our sighs and piteous groans,

Half stifled in this jumbled patch

Of wrenched memorial stones!”

“We late-lamented, resting here,

Are mixed to human jam,

And each to each exclaims in fear,

‘I know not which I am!’

“The wicked people have annexed

The verses on the good;

A roaring drunkard sports the text

Teetotal Tommy should!””

HS2 will not have the luxury of ploughing through historic remains and will have to deal with archaeological surveys throughout its tunnelling through London and beyond.

Perhaps the greatest literary description of the chaos and destruction wrought in the name of progress comes from Dickens in a famous passage from Dombey and Son:

“The first shock of a great earthquake had, just at that period, rent the whole neighbourhood to its centre. Traces of its course were visible on every side. Houses were knocked down; streets broken through and stopped; deep pits and trenches dug in the ground; enormous heaps of earth and clay thrown up; buildings that were undermined and shaking, propped by great beams of wood.

Here, a chaos of carts, overthrown and jumbled together, lay topsy-turvy at the bottom of a steep unnatural hill; there, confused treasures of iron soaked and rusted in something that had accidentally become a pond.

Everywhere were bridges that led nowhere; thoroughfares that were wholly impassable; Babel towers of chimneys, wanting half their height; temporary wooden houses and enclosures, in the most unlikely situations; carcases of ragged tenements, and fragments of unfinished walls and arches, and piles of scaffolding, and wildernesses of bricks, and giant forms of cranes, and tripods straddling above nothing.

In short, the yet unfinished and unopened Railroad was is progress; and, from the very core of all this dire disorder, trailed smoothly away, upon its mighty course of civilisation and improvement.”

People living close to Euston, Royal Oak and Paddington and along the proposed route of HS2 may read such passages with huge empathy, but modern construction methods and compensation schemes will surely make the process incomparable to the original Victorian chaos.