A FEW months back I was tramping across the north Pennines when I came across a delightful little valley I never knew existed.
Smardale, few miles west of Kirkby Stephen, is a miniature jewel of a valley that has been turned into a nature reserve managed by the Cumbria Wildlife Trust.
It is a truly magical spot, and most spectacular of all is the disused Smardale Gill railway viaduct that strides 550ft across Scandal Beck on 14 glorious, 90ft high stone arches. It is a smaller, less well known and, dare I say, prettier version of the famous Ribblehead Viaduct a few miles to the south.
I was intrigued. Here were the remnants of a trans-Pennine rail route I had never heard of. Who built it and why?
The answer to that question just about sums up the intrepid and entrepreneurial qualities of our Victorian ancestors who tackled engineering problems with such confidence and brio that they made Britain the most successful country on the planet.
In the 1850s the manufacturers of Barrow-in-Furness on the West coast were in need of a plentiful supply of comparatively cheap, good quality coal to feed their iron and steel furnaces.
On the opposite side of the country the coalfields of County Durham close to the East Coast produced exactly that. The trouble was what lay between the two – the daunting and incredibly difficult terrain of high moors and steep valleys of the Yorkshire Dales and North Pennines.
But in an astonishingly short time a railway was planned and built. When the engineers encountered those steep valleys they simply built a viaduct to carry the rails, as at Smardale Gill where the viaduct was constructed at a cost of £11,928 – the equivalent of about £1.4m in today’s money.
In 1861 the South Durham and Lancashire Union Railway opened for business and the line enjoyed more than 100 years of prodctive life until it was closed in 1962.
Listening to Prime Minster Boris Johnson finally giving the green light to the HS2 high-speed rail project this week, I couldn’t help contrasting the can-do attitude of our Victorian forefathers with the timidity, dithering and delay of current planners.
HS2 was first mooted by the last Labour government back in 2009 and, since then, we have spent 11 years in planning at a cost of more than £4bn – without a single mile of track being laid.
Even after the scheme has been given the final go-ahead this week, it could be 2040 before the first HS2 services operate in Yorkshire.
The initial idea was for a Y-shaped network of more than 330 miles of track linking London to Birmingham, and then in a second phase up to Manchester and Leeds.
The project promised a £15bn boost to the economy and a narrowing of the productivity gap that exists between north and south. Up to 18 trains an hour, each carrying up to 1,000 passengers, would travel at speeds of 250mph.
But there have been doubts from the beginning that have only increased as the cost of the project ballooned from an initial £32bn to something north of £100bn today.
But we in the North have a more fundamental problem with HS2 – the whole concept was devised back to front.
What the North’s creaking rail system needs is investment now – not in 2040. Yet the HS3 project, otherwise known as Northern Powerhouse Rail, a new high-speed rail line linking Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Hull and Newcastle, was tacked on almost as if it was a bit of an afterthought.
What is clear is that Northern Powerhouse Rail should have been built first to boost the economies of the great cities of Yorkshire, Lancashire and the North East – and once that had been completed consideration given to improved links to London.
In his statement to the Commons, Johnson insisted the two schemes were not “an either/or proposition” and added: “Both are needed and both will be built – as quickly and as cost-effectively as possible.”
Let’s hope so, and I am sure The Yorkshire Post will be vigilant in making sure the Prime Minister keeps that promise.
But I can’t help thinking that if the Victorians had been in charge the whole thing would have been built by now.