Obituary: The London and Birmingham Railway

Today, on the 10th of January 2012, the Secretary of State for Transport, the Right Honourable Justine Greening MP, announced the Government’s plans to press ahead with the construction of High Speed 2. This new rail link between London and Birmingham will provide additional capacity for longer and faster trains between the two cities; its announcement brings down the curtain on the 179-year history of the London and Birmingham Railway as the prime route between the UK’s two largest cities.

First plans for a railway between London and Birmingham emerged in the 1820s, but it was not until 1832 that a Bill was put before Parliament to authorise the route. This was rejected and had to be resubmitted in 1833; Parliament simultaneously accepted both it and the Grand Junction Railway, which would link Birmingham with the existing Liverpool and Manchester Railway. These two lines would make up the world’s first trunk railway and link London and the North West.

Robert Stephenson was chosen as engineer for the London and Birmingham Railway. His chosen alignment was intended to offer easy, sweeping curves and gentle gradients – apart from Camden Bank (added at a late stage in planning to allow the southern terminus of the line to be on the Euston Road in London rather than in Camden Town, two miles to the north) the line has no gradient steeper than 1 in 330 (about 0.3%). Splendid tunnel portals and viaducts with an air of permanence all gave an impression that this was a line here to stay. With the exception of a rather over-the-top Tudor-style bridge at Rugby and several overbridges modified for electrification, much of the infrastructure en route survives entirely intact.

The intermediate stations were largely diminutive affairs, but the termini were really something else. London Euston station – unfortunately a few hundred yards north of Euston Road – was given a splendid Doric Arch (so called although not really an arch) to gaze down on users of the new form of transport. The awnings over the platforms – located to the east of the arch – were relatively simple affairs, managing to be both lightweight and cluttered at the same time. Land to the west of the Arch was left free for the Great Western Railway to use should it wish to share the terminus, but the GWR opted for one of its own at Paddington.

The Grand Junction Railway opened in 1837, a year before the London and Birmingham. The two were to share a station at Birmingham Curzon Street, on the outskirts of the city. They were not competing railways; it had always been intended that they should work together. The alignment of the London and Birmingham – sweeping up to Rugby and then turning west to Birmingham – suggests that a direct connection avoiding Birmingham altogether was always planned. Nonetheless, the L&B took the opportunity to show customers which railway was the greatest when the two lines came side by side in their Birmingham terminus and built a gigantic three-storey stone block for the station building – larger than the Doric Arch at Euston, with Ionian columns and twenty-foot-high floors – to show off its grandeur.

Birmingham Curzon Street station in 2007

The last section of the line to be completed, through Kilsby Tunnel (which flooded with quicksand during construction), opened in 1838 and completed a direct chord from London to Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester.

Remarkably for such an early railway, we have an excellent and highly accurate pictorial record of its construction in the form of a series of lithographs drawn by an artist called Bourne. We know they are highly accurate because they can largely still be compared with their subject matter. They present a world yet to be industrialised and developed; the railway was built in the closing years of the reign of King William IV and opened under Queen Victoria, so Primrose Hill Tunnel (the first tunnel out of Euston) passed beneath a grassy hill where primroses could grow naturally. Now they exist purely in the back gardens of the houses which cover the hill and surround the first ten miles of the line.

The railway’s engine shed at Camden, so located partly because locomotives were not initially used on Camden Bank (it was believed too steep at the time), was swiftly rendered obsolete by growing traffic levels which left it too small for the locomotives being used and the number of locomotives required. Formal merger of the Grand Junction and London and Birmingham into the London and North Western Railway was followed by the opening of the Birmingham cut-off – the Trent Valley line between Rugby and Stafford. Extensions further north to create a mainline to Glasgow brought more traffic to concentrate on one mainline into London. Curzon Street station was abandoned to goods traffic in 1854 and replaced with New Street. Euston grew swiftly and to the degree that the Great Western would have been politely invited to build its own terminus had it not already done so. Originally the Great Northern and Midland Railways had used Euston as their London terminus but capacity problems, despite quadrupling of the mainline, forced them out into their own termini (Kings Cross and St Pancras respectively). While the east side of Euston station remained in the original lightweight but cluttered style, the west was developed with a typical heavy LNWR roof with hefty girders stretching across the departures platforms. The Arch was surrounded by waiting rooms, halls and offices before being hidden from Euston Road by an extension to the station hotel. The London and Birmingham’s inspiring face thereby vanished behind a utilitarian Victorian building.

The Grouping in 1923 resulted in the LNWR being forcibly merged with its great rival, the Midland Railway. After the shakedown period brought the two companies onto sufficiently friendly terms for the new London, Midland and Scottish Railway to work (at least, work as well as the world’s largest company ever could), the LNWR began specifying new fleets of locomotives for its great Anglo-Scottish express trains and prime services to other parts of its network – including, of course, Birmingham. The Royal Scots were superseded by the Princess Royals and the Duchesses. Services were accelerated and traffic developed further, though infrastructure modifications were inadequate. Plans to rebuild Euston station in a typical 1930s giant concrete block style, of the sort favoured in Germany at the time, were dropped as the nation moved to war.

Hitler redesigned Birmingham New Street.  The LMSR was nationalised in 1948  a few days after it inaugurated mainline diesel trains in the UK with locomotive No. 10000 on a service from London Euston. Harrow and Wealdstone, on the northern outskirts of London, had a refurbishment after playing host to Britain’s worst peacetime rail disaster in 1952.  In 1955 British Railways announced that the West Coast Mainline, as it was now called, would be electrified between Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and Euston. The overhead wires were fully in line with LNWR design practices; heavy girder structures carried the wires above the railway.  But they would never be seen matching the heavy girders of Euston’s departure platforms – the unmanageable, unwieldy and unplanned station was bulldozed during 1962 and replaced with a new set of buildings in a typical 1960s mould. Had the Doric Arch been built by the kerb of Euston Road, it might have survived on the grounds that, like the gatehouses at the station entrance which still proclaim Swansea to be served from Euston, it was out of the way of the main operations of the station. Removing it allowed the station’s 18 platforms to be made a broadly consistent length.

Electrification ensured that the railway could at least put up a decent fight against the growing competition from roads and airlines. However, the declining traffic and the degree to which it could be consolidated on a single route was demonstrated by the fact that the competing route from London to Birmingham (Great Western) was downgraded to a branchline in 1968, while the alternative routes to Liverpool (Great Western), Manchester (Midland) and Rugby (Great Central) were all shut. Curzon Street station was finally decommissioned altogether and handed over to Royal Mail for a sorting office. The new electric locomotives were not completely successful, with an occasional tendency to catch fire and ride  quality so poor that drivers refused to take them over 80mph for fear of being thrown from their seats.

BR proposed accelerating express trains to 155mph with the tilting Advanced Passenger Train. It was of much credit to Robert Stephenson that such speeds could even be considered for his great mainline. But the train didn’t work properly before the Government axed the project and BR rebranded the remnants, so that was that. The electrics were rebuilt and some more ones bought instead.

Electrification of the East Coast Mainline in the late 1980s put the West Coast on the back foot and the  planned 1990s upgrade was put back by privatisation. Some careful working of track possessions meant that the disintegrating mainline was handed over to Railtrack by BR with no temporary speed restrictions. Virgin West Coast arranged for 140mph running, but Railtrack’s subsequent realisation that the necessary signalling technology did not exist and that more work on the track was required than previously thought meant that Railtrack entered administration instead, the project had to be cut back and the budget rose impressively.

The completed scheme involved a reworking of Euston compared to carrying out heart surgery on a conscious patient and led to the demolition of several LNWR features – in particular the huge overall roof at Rugby, which had changed little since the LNWR rebuilt it in the 1880s. It was finished late, over budget and below original specification. Unfavourable comparisons were made with the construction of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, which was ongoing around the same time – it involved less passenger disruption and came in on time, to original specification and within budget.

The completed Channel Tunnel Rail Link was promptly renamed High Speed 1, which provided a clear inference that a second high-speed railway was planned. Sure enough, campaigns for a new mainline to the northwest strengthened and in October 2008 the Conservative Party announced that they would build High Speed 2 as an alternative to Heathrow’s third runway. The Labour Government came out in support in 2009 and produced a report proposing a different route avoiding Heathrow. Upon entering government the Conservatives accepted this alignment, while Labour began its time in opposition by adopting the Tory route.

Protests against High Speed 2 intensified, branding it as a waste of money and an unnecessarily large project. The alternative was further upgrades to the West Coast Mainline – in particular the London and Birmingham section, now Europe’s busiest railway (and probably not very far down the world rankings). The upgrades required as an alternative consisted of large-scale train lengthening, mass platform lengthening, redesigning several junctions with more flyovers and laying additional running lines along what is already a 4 track railway (except south of Watford Junction, where two additional commuter lines were added and electrified by the LNWR to provide an unusual 6 track alignment.)

The authorisation of High Speed 2 means that fast trains will be removed from the London and Birmingham Railway for much of the route, although they will still use the original termini at Euston and Curzon Street (where the L&B building is to be recommissioned).  This will free up the current alignment for more semi-fast, stopping and freight trains, resulting in places like Milton Keynes, Northampton, Rugby and Nuneaton being offered more frequent, comfortable and consistent services. The L&B’s status of Europe’s busiest railway and as the most important section of the British rail network is ultimately not under threat, but its days as the high-profile top-link Premier Line are largely over. It has always been a victim of its own tremendous success and the next stage in its life reflects this fate.

London and Birmingham Railway – opened throughout 17th September 1838, downgrade announced 10th January 2012.


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