What’s This Blog About?
Transport can, and has, made the world more beautiful. It’s had a huge impact on our culture. But most people in the transport industry don’t like to celebrate transport’s impact on the built environment, books, films and art (basically, I think they’re a bit embarrassed). So if this blog doesn’t, who will?
When is it Published?
All things being equal, this is a weekly blog, and a new entry appears every Wednesday at 1700h (5.00pm in the old money). That said, this blog doesn’t actually bring me in any income, so sometimes my paying work has to take priority. Sometimes I’ll do a short entry in between regular ones if there’s something transport design-y I think you should know about.
Who’s This Blog by?
My name’s Daniel Wright, and I’m a freelance transport writer. More details in the “About me” section, and contact details in the “contact the author” section.
Do You Do Talks?
Why, now you come to mention it, there is a The Beauty of Transport presentation. Details in the “Contact the Author” section if you want to book one. Now the advert is out of the way…
How Did All This Begin?
Ah, well, indirectly I think it began like this:
…but Seriously, How Did All This Begin?
Oh, seriously. I see. It began with a spec opinion piece I failed to get published in any of the transport magazines I dared send it to (see what I mean about people in the transport industry being embarrassed about transport’s place in our cultural lives?). As I wrote it, I realised I felt more strongly about the subject than I’d expected to, so my failure to get it published rankled all the more. In the end, I decided to expand it into The Beauty of Transport. For anyone interested in that original article (it was originally written in Feburary 2012 if that helps place it into context), it follows below…
A Bridge Too Far?
Standing at St Pancras International in London recently, I became aware that the history of its construction marks an interesting contrast with the current opposition to High Speed 2. There I was, at the terminus of High Speed 1, a station which seems to have won near-unanimous plaudits as one of Britain’s best stations, the kind of gateway that we’re proud to show off to international rail travellers – and domestic ones from the East Midlands and Kent, for that matter.
It’s barely recognisable from the gloomy, grimy hulk I remember from my BedPan line youth. But most of the travellers who pass through here (and they don’t just pass through; watch the number who stop and stare up at that amazing single span roof) will have no idea of the trauma that construction of the Midland Railway’s route into London and its terminus caused to the city. Countless slum dwellings were swept away with very little warning or care what happened to the inhabitants. Agar Town to all intents and purposes completely vanished. The graveyard of St Luke’s church was dug up, with corpses aplenty exposed to the air in a most macabre fashion. Yet all this has largely been forgotten by the general public, who now perceive only the engineering excellence and architectural exuberance of St Pancras and the Midland Grand Hotel (or St Pancras Rennaisance if you prefer).
Much of the current debate over High Speed 2 centres on how to mollify protestors along the route, by hiding as much of it as possible. More of the route in outer London will be in tunnel. More of the route through the Chilterns will be in tunnel or deep cutting. Indeed, Transport Secretary Justine Greening seemed proud to boast that only two of the 13 miles of route in the Chilterns will not be in tunnel or cutting, ensuring its invisibility to the world, and the invisibility of the Chilterns to those on the trains. All this seems to be an attempt to buy off some obstreperous MPs and local authorities whose constituencies and areas lie on the route. More than half the route will now be in tunnel or cutting. Those not ignorant of history can already detect a whiff of the Victorian trend for new railways to make unexpected (and, in the longer term, expensive) wiggles around the bottom of estates belonging to the landed gentry, who not coincidentally were often the same ones giving assent in Parliament to the Bills promoting construction. I’m no tunnelling expert, but I’m pretty sure that the high speed lines in France and Spain I’ve travelled on don’t have anything like that proportion of tunnels and cuttings. Perhaps they’re proud of their new railways, rather than embarrassed by them.
It doesn’t have to be like this, and it hasn’t always been so. When Brunel’s Great Western Railway met the Thames at Maidenhead, he didn’t sigh and build a bridge using the conventional standards of the time. Instead he built a bridge with a pair of arches that were the widest and flattest seen in the world up to that point. It’s beautiful. When the West Highland Railway threaded its way to Fort William, or the Midland Railway hacked, blasted and drove its way to Scotland along the Settle and Carlisle route, neither railway came upon valleys and halted progress because of the visual impact the railway would cause; they built heart-stopping viaducts. Such structures were unpopular at the time of construction, and in Derbyshire the poet John Ruskin rued what he saw as the destruction of Monsal Dale by a new viaduct (noting that “now, every fool in Buxton can be at Bakewell in half-an-hour, and every fool in Bakewell at Buxton.”). Watch the Hogwarts’ Express cross the Glenfinnan viaduct in the Harry Potter films and tell me we haven’t now taken our railway viaducts to our hearts. Not to mention the Forth or Saltash railway bridges.
In short, major new transport infrastructure doesn’t come without disruption. We can either accept it and celebrate it, or spend our time trying to hide it and pursue designs with mediocrity in mind. What is extraordinary is that hardly anyone notices a railway – even an electrified one – after a few years, anyway. In the Austrian Alps, electrified railway lines thread their way through the mountains and across the valleys. The scenery is pure chocolate box (I’d argue even more attractive than the Chilterns), with chalets, snow-topped mountains, and occasional cows or goats, but no one is complaining about the visual impact of the railway. Railways seem to fit into the landscape in a sympathetic manner. The DfT seems to have fallen for the anti-HS2 hype about visual impact, but in reality a new high speed railway will blend in much better than any of the motorways which criss-cross the country and which are now accepted, if not exactly loved.
Yet even roads have provided the opportunity for transport infrastructure which can enhance our lives when allowed to make a statement. I have a soft spot for the Silver Jubilee Bridge at Runcorn, but for sheer visceral impact, might I recommend a trip to the River Tarn valley near Millau in southern France? In a beautiful valley, Norman Foster designed what at the time was the tallest bridge in the world. It’s beautiful, the valley is beautiful, the two complement each other and the site attracts visitors in its own right.
In contrast, the structures on our own High Speed 1 are utterly muted. The viaduct at the Medway is a great experience – provided you’re on the train. To look at the viaduct from elsewhere is to appreciate a competent structure, but hardly a memorable landmark. The approach to London on High Speed 1 must be one of Europe’s dullest entries by train to a capital city. Somewhere in the Thames estuary, with the skyscrapers of London tantalisingly visible on the horizon, trains disappear into a long dark tunnel. With only the briefest of appearances by daylight at Stratford International, itself sunk into a deep trench, it’s tunnel all the way to St Pancras. To be honest, the entry to London from Europe is a bit like being on the fastest Underground train you could possibly imagine. It’s dark and monotonous with only the occasional signal or emergency light flashing past to relieve the boredom. This is the legacy we seek to repeat on High Speed 2. The thought of another long tunnel into London hardly thrills. I don’t suppose the tunnel ventilation shafts will be anything other than shy concrete boxes, hidden in corners wherever possible. Yet even these humble structures can enhance the local environment. Don’t believe me? Check out the crenellated brick rotundas which mark out Kilsby tunnel in Northamptonshire. And what about that lovely Art Deco tower alongside the Three Graces on Liverpool’s riverfront? Why, it’s a ventilation shaft for the Queensway road tunnel.
Many of us who work in passenger or car transport feel profoundly uncomfortable with the idea that our industry plays an important emotional and cultural role beyond its core purpose of moving people from place to place. Transport affects people – both users and non-users – on a profound level, something many practitioners are extremely reluctant to confront. It’s one of those uncomfortable topics that few dare talk about, with the exception of designers like Ray Stenning (and feel the embarrassment in a conference hall or seminar room when he starts talking about emotional responses to transport) or architects like Richard Rogers and Norman Foster (for whom transport infrastructure is only a small part of a much wider portfolio). It would do us no harm to embrace this aspect of our industry – it’s nothing to be frightened of provided that the we bear in mind the core job.
It seems we are denying to ourselves spectacular structures on High Speed 2, in favour of trying to hide the entire project, out of a misplaced sense of mollifying stakeholders on the route. In doing so, we deny to subsequent generations too, uplifting sights to match the great viaducts and bridges of Britain, great stations like St Pancras and the host of lesser structures which are still proud to flaunt themselves, rather than seeking safety in anonymity.
To mangle William Morris, we should have nothing in our transport networks which we do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful. To which I would add, particularly when it comes to High Speed 2, preferably both.