Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has written about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel question – and what it means for you.
Old Oak Common is a scruffy, ill-defined area at the upper end of the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, adjacent to Wormwood Scrubs – itself ambitiously described as a nature reserve. Old Oak Common is also the name of the west London stop for High Speed 2 (HS2), the conspicuously expensive new line between London Euston and Birmingham. I imagine when the station opens it will be called “West London Parkway”. But it will not move closer to the center of the capital.
For a while on Friday morning, it looked as if the last six miles of the HS2 route from the West Midlands to the capital might be shelved entirely, as the cost of the damaged and delayed project balloons into an undetermined but baffling number of billions. The Chancellor later clarified that the line would be completed all the way to London Euston.
Labour, meanwhile, has vowed to complete the first UK high-speed line to run somewhere other than Kent or France. That includes the leg of Leeds, which the current government scrapped. I will hold Labor to its promise. But regardless of which party is in power when HS2 finally opens, we already know that the line will temporarily end at Old Oak Common.
A skeleton service will appropriately stop just west of Kensal Green cemetery, in a part of northwest London where almost no one wants to be.
Three years ago I wrote: “The current expectation is for a token service of three trains an hour between Old Oak Common and Birmingham Curzon Street, starting some time between 2029 and 2033, with 10 trains an hour from Euston between 2031 and 2036 .”
Since then, start dates have dropped alarmingly, but the long wait for the final miles to Euston will remain.
“Genuinely touching gesture by the government,” tweeted Professor Anand Menon on Friday. “Stay on a bus replacement service from Old Oak common and those northerners who come on HS2 will feel right at home as they approach central London.”
Indeed, the Elizabeth Line—another megaproject that came in years late and billions over budget—will take the brunt. I confidently predicted that whoever has the poisoned chalice as transport secretary when HS2 finally gets rolling will be explaining how wonderful it is to go from a 225mph express to a suburban service from all stations to Essex through central London. But other locations with out-of-town rail stations show how foolish and annoying it is to force intercity travelers to switch to another service to reach the city center.
The French are happy to find stops on high-speed lines rather randomly and then adopt a “Ryanair” approach to place names (Europe’s biggest budget airline has long been ambitious about naming some of its lesser-known airports). The “Aix-en-Provence TGV” is significantly closer to Marseille airport than it is to Cezanne’s hometown.
Some of Australasia’s inter-city stations are equally unhelpful. The Indian-Pacific from Perth to Sydney begins its never-ending journey from a glorified bus station, East Perth Terminal, a good seven miles from the ocean. In Adelaide, the Indian-Pacific meets three other long-distance trains – Ghan, Great Southern and Overland – in the south-eastern suburb of Keswick rather than the handsome city centre. And across New Zealand, the stunning TranzAlpine journey across the South Island from Greymouth via Arthur’s Pass ends gently at Christchurch station – sandwiched between a used car dealership and Tower Junction outside the city’s shopping centre.
The US has pressed the self-destruct button on many of its magnificent stations; to board an express from Detroit to Chicago last summer, I had to take a streetcar several miles north from the heart of the “Motor City” and stand around at a platform stop. Train journeys between cities should not be between suburban areas. Travelers deserve, and demand, better.