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February 1, 2013 4:37 pm
The prime minister and his chancellor have cited great Victorian building projects as an inspiration for the High Speed 2 north-south railway – the biggest rail project since the 19th century construction boom that revolutionised Britain.
But the vision of our forebears was less assured than it seems.
“There wasn’t ever a plan to build an east coast main line and a west coast main line as they stand today,” said Vicky Stretch, Network Rail’s York-based archivist. “They more or less came about by chance.”
The country’s two main north-south routes were the result of a building frenzy between 1830 and 1850, which saw numerous private companies build stretches of line of between 40 and 70 miles long to connect various cities and towns.
This was one of the factors that meant the routes were completed quickly – compared with the 16 years it is expected to take to build HS2 – as the Victorians overcame many natural obstacles, often armed only with picks and shovels.
Other factors that drove faster construction included fewer homeowners, lower population densities, laxer planning controls and a liberal sprinkling of corruption that saw the railway barons of the age bribe MPs to back the necessary legislation.
It is telling that the leading visionary of the age – Isambard Kingdom Brunel – encountered some of the biggest problems on the one Victorian project that Ms Stretch says can be compared to HS2.
Brunel’s Great Western Railway was conceived in the 1820s to connect London to Bristol. It did not open until 1841, because heavy lobbying against the project meant a 10-year delay in getting a bill through parliament.
One of the leading opponents was Eton College, which objected on the basis that it might encourage pupils to “seek the doubtful dissipations of London town”.
David Cameron and George Osborne, Old Etonians both, see things differently and portray HS2 as a way of bridging the north-south divide.
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