A festive feast of historic railway significance

SUNDAY 23 December 2012 marks the 175th anniversary of a unique railway event — an ‘orgy’ of food and drink involving the leading engineers of the London & Birmingham Railway, celebrating the success of their chief engineer Robert Stephenson and the fact that, after more than three long years of battling against almost overwhelming odds, the 2,224 metre Kilsby Tunnel, on the Warwickshire/Northamptonshire border, was finally nearing completion ahead of the full opening of the first trunk railway line ever to reach London. 

That event — “an orgy of a polite and orderly variety,” according to L T C Rolt’s biography of father and son George and Robert Stephenson — took place at the ‘Dun Cow’ inn, which still exists today, at Dunchurch, near Rugby, starting with Robert Stephenson’s arrival at 17.30 and continuing until the last remnants of the group staggered out at around 08.00 next day!

The repast began with Francis Foster, the L&BR’s Chairman, having Robert Stephenson seated on his right, and father George on his left. A correspondent for ‘The Railway Times’ (a 19th Century Railnews) wrote: “It would have done any man’s heart good to have heard the deafening applause which followed when the healths of the father and son were drunk.” Many of those present, including both Stephensons, were moved to tears, it reported.  Robert finally left the table at 02.00 — but according to ‘The Railway Times’ the party was by no means over. George Stephenson was voted into the chair, which he occupied until 04.00, to be followed by Robert’s assistant Tom Gooch who eventually “rose and tottered off” at 06.00, but “some few choice spirits” continued “until they heard the clock strike eight.”

Rolt dryly observes: “There must have been some aching heads and disordered livers among the engineering staff of the L&BR for some days after.”

The Stephensons’ vision is still with us today 

That the London & Birmingham Railway — commenced in 1834 and opened throughout between Birmingham Curzon Street and London Euston in September 1838 — is still with us today as the southern, and busiest, section of the West Coast Main Line, owes much to the vision of the early railway pioneers, such as Robert Stephenson and his father George.

It should also, perhaps, be a reminder of how foolish are those today who say 400km/h is too high a design speed for HS2, given that the new railway could be with our successors not just in the 22nd Century but quite possibly in the 23rd!

Unlike today, the L&BR was built without the assistance of much in the way of mechanical aids but mainly by the brawn of navvies, many of whom lost their lives in the process, and the assistance of thousands of horses; 1,200 navvies alone toiled on completing Kilsby Tunnel.

Today’s opponents of HS2 claim that major projects invariably exceed their cost estimates — although recent ones, including HS1 and the Olympic Park, have been built within budget — but this was also certainly true of the London & Birmingham.

The original estimate was £2.4 million, but the Directors were shocked to find the whole project had cost them well over twice this — £5.5 million.  Kilsby Tunnel took over three years to complete because of the need to overcome enormous and almost-overwhelming quicksands that trial borings had failed to reveal.

The tunnel was estimated to cost £99,000, but the actual figure, at £320,000, was more than three times over budget.  Robert Stephenson’s desire to avoid steep gradients and to follow the natural contours of the land, together with opposition to his line from many of the landed gentry, also meant his railway followed a curvaceous route which has been an inhibiting factor ever since to achieving modern high speed operations without the aid of tilt — and it is doubtful that Robert Stephenson ever envisaged his line would be carrying trains as frequently as every three minutes at 125mph, as happens at peak times today!

For reasons that were never entirely clear, the L&BR, like many other early railways (Brunel’s Great Western was the great exception) adopted a restrictive loading gauge, maybe because the size of the structures, such as bridges and tunnels, was influenced by those previously built by the canal engineers.

Certainly, Robert Stephenson went on to build many railways abroad — including in France, Belgium, Austria and Norway — and these all adopted a much wider and higher structure gauge.

Britain’s limited structure gauge limits capacity.

As a result, today in Great Britain we are not able to operate trains as high or as wide — or, indeed, as long — as many railways overseas. Coupled with the network capacity that we lost in Britain after Beeching’s trunk route rationalisation some 45 years ago, this highlights the growing need for new rail network capacity to cope with ever-increasing demand  European interoperability standards now require station platforms to be 400 metres long (whereas on the West Coast Main Line today the realistic maximum train length that can be universally accommodated is 250 metres, equal to an 11-coach Pendolino).

The European rules also mean routes must be constructed to accommodate the GC structure gauge, which is large enough to permit duplex passenger coaches.  This combination of train length, height and width, which already exists on HS1 and would be adopted on HS2, means that, depending on the internal configuration, trains are able to accommodate well in excess of 1,000 passengers, whereas a Pendolino extended to 11 coaches can only provide around 600 seats.

An even greater problem with Robert Stephenson’s 175-year-old infrastructure — as revealed in a report this month into poor reliability on the West Coast Main Line between Rugby and London — is that there is little clearance between the tracks.  As a result, access to carry out maintenance and renewals is limited because of health and safety concerns, which necessitate the closure of adjoining lines.

The report was compiled by Chris Gibb, Virgin Trains’ chief operating officer while on secondment to Network Rail, who said the route south of Rugby was “not getting the level of renewal required to sustain high levels of performance, and is perceived as ‘inefficient’.”

He explained: “An example of this is the number of infrastructure faults relating to the Up [towards London] Fast line, which is the most difficult (expensive) to access, requiring the Down Fast and Down Slow to both be blocked for any significant work to be undertaken, as clearances are very tight.”

‘WCML will be trashed by 2026′

The reliability review by the team led by Chris Gibb has been overseen by a Joint Board, chaired by Network Rail’s chief executive Sir David Higgins and attended by the managing directors of all the train companies that use the southern section of the West Coast Main Line.

David Higgins has continued to express his concerns about the condition of the route in several public statements. In evidence to the House of Commons Transport Select Committee he described the WCML as “a busy, heavily-used railway, and we’re really pounding it.”  And speaking of the relief that will be provided by HS2 in 2026, Sir David advised: “What we really should be doing when we finish the first stage of High Speed 2 is take the old West Coast route out and spend a year fixing it up, and doing it properly. Because by then I reckon it will be really trashed.”

Meanwhile, he believes the route “will need a lot of work done on renewals” — which has been confirmed by Chris Gibb’s reliability report recommending remedial action that may have to continue until 2024, just ahead of HS2’s opening.

By then, Robert Stephenson’s railway will be almost 190 years old.  Not only will that be a fantastic achievement, but if David Higgins’ plan for ‘fixing it up’ can then be carried out, the line will continue well into its third century of valuable service to the British economy.  Let’s hope that when Euston Station has been completely rebuilt, including its new HS2 terminal, Robert Stephenson’s statue, which now stands outside in Euston Square, will be given pride of place inside.

Perhaps it would make an ideal focus for a Dun Cow-style banquet to celebrate a future with the new HS2 and the original London & Birmingham Railway serving the nation together?

Postscript  Unfortunately, it will not be easy this year for anyone to travel to Rugby for the 175th anniversary of the Dun Cow celebratory dinner, as the West Coast Main Line will be closed south of Rugby from 22 December throughout the Christmas and New Year period while new junctions and signalling are commissioned in the Bletchley area — one of the schemes that were deferred to keep within the £9 billion route modernisation budget.  A similar resignalling and track replacement project is outstanding at Watford Junction — but is not scheduled to be undertaken until Christmas 2014. After then Chris Gibb’s reliability report suggests the route will need to be closed on Saturday and Sunday nights for up to 10 years while infrastructure is renewed between Watford and London.

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