Many years ago when I was studying O Level Social and Economic History, the chapter in my textbook on the building of the railways talked about a row with an aristocrat. The line was to be built through the land of powerful people, which meant an Act of Parliament had to be passed to give the company permission. The local Lord objected to his land being used. The trains would go less than a mile from his front door and he did not want to have to look at the trains or cope with smoke and noise. As he could make trouble in the House of Lords when the Act was discussed, the company agreed to build a cutting going into the tunnel through the hill near the house, so the trains could not be seen. It made the project more expensive, but the company building the line did not want an argument. The story stuck in my mind.

Much later when I was teaching in a school in Stafford, I took a party to Shugborough, the mansion near the school which dates from the eighteenth century. It was once owned by the Earls of Lichfield. As I walked around the estate on a winters day with the leaves fallen from the trees I looked across the Capability Brown style landscape with not a blade of grass out of place and suddenly realized there was a railway line less than a mile away. The modern electric cables popped over the edge of a cutting where once only smoke from a passing steam locomotive would have been seen.

This was the very place in my textbook. The railway is the West Coast Main Line (WCML) between London Euston and Glasgow via Stafford. The line went through a hill which has monuments on top and a massive tunnel cut through to take the railway. The tunnel entrances can only be seen close up and the southern end has the cutting hiding the line. When I looked closely, the entrances have mass-ive mock castle ornaments making the tunnel part of the Gothic revival. It is no surprise they have listed building status.

The Bottleneck

Built in 1847 the tunnel has never been rebuilt or expanded. Wikipedia now claims the line takes 40 per cent of all freight traffic in the UK – not a reliable source of information, but the West Coast mainline is obviously of vital importance. And apart from being electrified, the tunnels have never been changed. Calls for the line to be expanded have been around for a long time – and according to Wiki have succeeded. There are now four tracks south of Stafford going to the tunnel, to replace the two tracks of 1847. The old pattern was one going north, one going south.

But it is not true the job was completed.

South of Stafford station the four tracks have two slow, two fast, one of each north and the same going south. But just before they go into the Shugborough tunnel, the tracks reduce to only 3 and then only two tracks go through the tunnel. It is the same pattern as in 1847.. If the Earl of Lichfield of 1847 could come back now he would recognize the arrangement as the one he fixed with the company when Victoria was Queen.

One of the key issues underpinning this site is the idea that History is not mainly about the past. It is about how the part shapes the present, how we got here and where we are going. The Shugborough tunnel is just such a lesson. It is clearly not up to the job needed in the C21st, it is a bottleneck. In the disastrous development that is the HS2 high speed train, I can’t recall any discussion of the bottleneck in why we need a new line from London to Wigan and Leeds.

HS2 is mainly a blank cheque for wasting money, but one valid argument used to justify HS2 is that the West Coast Main Line needs more capacity. This is true, we have more traffic than in 1847, and the problems at Shugborough are not difficult to understand even though there is not a lot of traffic on the line during the day.. But the solution to a bottleneck at Shugborough, given that the tunnel is a listed building and can’t be touched, is to build another tunnel. Another two lines next to the existing tunnel would add 100% more capacity. Job done. It would cost an arm and a leg, but far less than the full HS2 project. Not the full solution, but a step in the right direction. And a nod to the Earl of Lichfield of 1847 who forced the company to build a cutting that was not actually needed showing we no longer waste money on vanity projects.

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