Scuttling About in the Husk of Greatness
Notes on the past of the Conservative Party conference venue in Manchester.
At the start of October, the Conservatives will hold their party conference in Manchester. I have no interest in the event itself, nor do I have any other reason to attend this gathering of hypernormal bizarreries and sycophants. What does capture my attention, however, is exactly where it is being held this year.
Today it might be known as the Manchester Central Convention Complex, but this is merely a superficial homage to its past glory as Manchester Central railway station. Opened in 1880 and designed by the legendary railway architect Sir John Fowler, it was one of the homes of the Cheshire Lines Committee. This was the second-largest joint railway in the country in its prime, stewards of 143 miles of fine northern tracks. The name of this station evokes one of the partners which operated the Cheshire Lines (albeit coincidentally, since the station was principally used as a Midland Railway terminus), the Great Central Railway.
I have discussed the Great Central before and will continue to in future, simply because they built the last main line railway before the High Speed vanities made their aptly vain attempts at claiming the Victorians’ legacy for themselves. The London Extension to the forerunner Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway was 92 miles in length, including several miles of tunnelling and viaducts, and took about three years to build. It was built to high engineering standards in terms of gradients, track curves, station design and future-proofing. Despite costing nearly four times as much as first estimated, the price of the line (adjusted for inflation) was less than £2 billion. This connected to several dozen more miles of track known as the Derbyshire Lines, built in the early 1890s to access the Nottinghamshire collieries and give the London Extension a convenient route to the northern MS&LR network. In all, the main London to Manchester service of the Great Central covered 205 miles via Aylesbury, Rugby, Leicester, Loughborough, Nottingham, Sheffield and more.
Dr Beeching considered the Great Central’s main line as unnecessary duplication, just as Manchester Central became apparently surplus to requirements; neither survived the 1960s. Yet Manchester Central station was listed in 1963, so British Rail gave it the worse fate of being a dilapidated car park until renovated for its current purpose in the 1980s. From 400 trains a day into a husk, now one that gets to host the political party complicit in its demise and likely ignorant about its temporary residence in the shadows of this country’s former excellence.
Of course, the Conservatives are quite concerned about one railway in particular at present, High Speed 2. Its first phase, perhaps the only one with a reasonable chance of completion now, will be as long as the former Cheshire Lines and substantially less useful. Its construction timescale and budget are ludicrous and only growing more so. This levelling-up Shinkansen resembles nothing of the sort. The state’s talent for sclerotic management of infrastructure projects like HS2 is only matched by its ability to double-down with additional dysfunction. It too resides atop what came before without being able to mimic past achievements, the alignment using the scar Beeching’s axe made of the former London Extension for several miles in Buckinghamshire.
Some still think that the Conservatives will spontaneously reverse course at some point and aspire towards something more than making ineffectual sandcastles from ashes. As the above notes demonstrate, even when the party’s actions place it amidst the shadows of our past these hopes might prove misplaced.
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