I’m originally from the Kent-Sussex border, and I went to university in Durham. This was a place so far away I knew nothing about it, to the extent that I’d concluded it must be a mining town. Still, they’d offered me an interview, so I started the long, long train journey north. In those days they paid your fare, too.
My God, the trains were slow. The carriages were rather elegant in their shabby way, with vastly more room per passenger than you get today. The restaurant cars served beautiful kippers of a quality you can now find only in Fortnum & Mason. However, there was no grace to the engines. Huge lumpen greasy diesel locos that chugged slowly all the way up the flat east side of the country. I finally arrived at what turned out to be the celestial city of Durham in bright sunlight and an intoxicatingly sharp frost, was interviewed by a kindly old Shakespearian scholar, and that was it. I was in. And in my final year, InterCity 125s arrived.
Recently, I was shown around London’s newly internationalised St Pancras station, which looks very like an old station that has won the National Lottery. To the tune of £800m. A trial Eurostar train was parked up at one of the platforms. In total, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link project – building the line branded as ‘High Speed One’ – has cost £5.8bn. It’s all ever so impressive. And yet the impact of this on me was as nothing compared to the moment back at the birth of Punk when – clad in my Rotter’s Club garb of exceptionally baggy trousers and a tight tank top, topped with my dad’s splendid Royal Air Force greatcoat – I stood on the platform at Durham station and watched the shiny Kenneth Grange-designed nose-cone of my first InterCity 125 approach the platform.
Overnight, the south and the north moved a lot closer together. It was a moment of technological breakthrough. Getting on one of those trains felt like a real adventure, and I couldn’t believe how fast the journey suddenly became. And they were still only diesels, though they made a lovely whistling-turbine noise. The great thing was it cost exactly the same to buy a ticket on those trains as it did on the old ones. There was no Concorde-style premium. They didn’t even hold a launch party. They just put them into service.
In 1991, they electrified the East Coast line and introduced still faster – though much less characterful – trains. At that point, progress stopped. So you might well imagine that the north is getting further away again. And you’d be right. Consider this. Paris and Newcastle are equidistant from London. From 14 November, the fastest rail journey from London to Paris will be two hours and 15 minutes. The fastest journey to Newcastle is three hours. That’s one-third slower. What will it take to bring those times into balance?
I won’t make any cheap jibes about Paris perhaps being a more attractive destination than Newcastle. The line goes on to Edinburgh, after all, which is fast becoming another international destination. So it’s like this. Just as football stadiums get exponentially more expensive to build if you want more than 60 000 seats, so train lines demand huge investment to make them truly fast. Up to a point, you can improve and upgrade. And beyond that point, well, you need a ‘High Speed Two’, costing a minimum of £11bn. Plus a clever new train to knock your socks off the way the 125 did.