The U.K.’s High Speed 2 In Historical Perspective: Opposition to the First Passenger Railroad

High Speed 2 (HS2) is an ambitious British rail project whose initial phase — building a high speed track from London Euston to the West Midlands — was given Royal Assent by Parliament in 2017.


This gargantuan project, dubbed the most expensive such endeavour in the world, has been mired by repeated scandals. To name a few, projected costs have ballooned from $70.22 to around $100.85 billion, it has borne lawsuits concerning corrupt tendering practices, and has vastly underestimated the cost of buying out the land that it needs to. Thus, HS2 remains in the national eye as both a potential boon and as a modernising force to the U.K.’s economy, particularly in the North and Midlands (of England), and as an utterly underwhelming, overpriced vanity project with no foresight and continual bad planning.


The main points for and against HS2 have been extensively covered in countless pieces such as this one and need little revisiting. However, the issue of massive infrastructure projects facing resistance holds immense historical precedent and leaves much to be unpacked. In the American context, we can think back to the Keystone XL Pipeline controversy of 2010-2017. It may be revealing to further investigate the history of such projects, and resistance to them to contextualize current controversy.


Thus, I thought back to HS2’s earliest possible historical mirror: opposition to the very first public railway in Britain. It is interesting to ask whether Brits reacted in the same way that they have to the development of HS2. Were farmers and landowners impacted in the same way? How did they resist?


This piece presents history for history’s sake but may also help put HS2 into a wider context.


The First Passenger Railroad: A Narrative


The team that birthed the first locomotive-powered public railway was led by George Stephenson and Edward Pease. Stephenson, though not the first to attempt inventing a locomotive, was the first to create a successful flanged-wheel adhesion locomotive — an achievement that sadly only train enthusiasts (unlike myself) will fully appreciate. Pease was a railway promoter who led the push for a railroad with a way to carry coal from West Durham to Stockton. Both pioneers rightly competed for the title of “Father of Railways.” What was originally intended to be a draft horse-serviced railway (38) to aid in the transportation of coal became the very first locomotive-powered passenger railway, and opened on Sept. 27, 1825, running between the towns of Stockton and Darlington in County Durham, in the Northeast of England.


But, this was not without opposition. Our story is centered around the clash between Stephenson and Pease’s group of railway promoters and effectively, everyone else. Opposition to the railway was almost inspiringly united, comprising Lords, farmers and disgruntled residents. Their reasons were many, but focused mainly on the forcible acquisition of land, low compensation for that land, and the increased competition the railway posed on alternative and entrenched transportation methods such as horse-led stage coaches. However, it is notable that this was opposition spawned before the decision to employ a steam locomotive as opposed to traditional horse-pulled carriages was even made! In other words, it wasn’t so much the steam engine that locals feared, but the impact of an efficient transportation system on their own lands and services.


Because of this opposition, even passing the bill to authorise the railroad through Parliament was a struggle and Royal Assent was hard-earned (69).


Two of the opponents that are the most historically prominent were the Lords Darlington and Eldon, members of the landed gentry and House of Lords, whose members voted on the bill to authorize the construction of the railway.


The initial route for the railway passed through one of Lord Darlington’s fox-covers (used for fox-hunting) (57), leading him to label the plan, somewhat dramatically, “harsh and oppressive, and injurious to the interests of the country through which it is intended that the railway shall pass (29)!” This personal grievance gave him enough of a reason to protest against the passage of the bill.


Lord Eldon’s squabble with the proposed line was somewhat less self-centred, though of course it also sprung from the fact that the railway was set to be built over his estate (57). Poring over the bill proposing the line, he was suspicious of the conveying and compulsory purchase of the land on which the rail was to be laid. Eldon displayed an understandable fear (60) of a government-approved project’s ability to procure land as it pleased from its private owners and levy a charge for its usage on top of that.


In addition, Eldon opposed a clause in the bill which specified that only those whose lands directly adjoined the line could make use of it to transport their coal on the grounds that it was unfairly exclusive (61). It neglected those who lived near the proposed line but whose lands were not directly connected to it. This raised the pertinent question of compensation for the impacts of a government-approved infrastructure project — common to HS2 and other such undertakings. Eventually, the bill was amended to allow those living within five miles of the railway use of it (61).


Citizens less powerful than the Lords were also up in arms. Farmers feared that the way in which their land would be cut up would leave it unable to be cultivated, destroying their livelihoods. “Petitioners against [the bill] drew attention to [its] defects, which did not enable an owner or occupier of land to ascertain what part of his property was intended to be taken (62)…”


And so, with resistance from both inside and outside of Parliament, the promoters’ first attempt to pass the bill failed with 93 votes for and 106 against (27) — a slim margin which surprisingly, instead of leaving the promoters feeling defeated, rendered them “far from discourage[ed]…it showed them their strength and secured the respect of their opponents (63).”


The narrow margin spurred them on and showed them that victory was nearly in sight. Only a few hurdles were left to overcome in order to secure a majority vote to pass the bill. Unfortunately, those hurdles were high, resting on the shoulders of Lords. Stephenson’s team had little choice but to compensate Lord Eldon substantially for 3.25 acres of his estate (27). It is important to note here that the project was privately funded by shareholders (“subscribers”) because this is distinct from HS2, which is funded by the taxpayer. This means that buyouts didn’t fall on taxpayers’ shoulders. The promoters even altered their route to avoid Lord Darlington’s fox-cover, placating him. These two actions won over arguably the most important figures in this equation: the ones with the power to give the project a go-ahead.


Also, the promoters reached out to members of the community who had parliamentary influence to balance the scales in their favour. One such individual was Mr T. Grey, of Millfield, whom, on Feb. 22, 1819 wrote to Joseph Pease that he was “most happy to exert [his parliamentary influence] in favour of an object of public utility (29-30)…” And thus, with Lords Eldon and Darlington’s concessions, along with strong-arming from figures like Grey, the Lords ceased their fierce opposition to the railway.


Though the road ahead seemed clear when the bill was read a second time, fate struck and King George III died, causing the vote to be delayed for another parliamentary setting (28). However, when Apr. 12, 1821 rolled around, the bill was read for a third time and quickly received Royal Assent a week later. Things were finally looking up.


But not for too long. The areas through which the final line was to pass still faced much resistance from the locals after construction began on May 13, 1822 (35). One of these areas was a swampy district named Myers Flat. Almost unanimously, the farmers residing in Myers Flat resented efforts to construct the railway and often mocked those involved in its construction with the fact that building on such marshy land was impossible, lending the ‘mysterious’ shifting of the construction-work to “fairies (41).”


Furthermore, it was not just farmers who feared the railway. Single-horse carters felt threatened by the competition the line brought and “[c]laims for compensation were made by residents, landowners and others, who appeared to believe that the modest little line would render South Durham uninhabitable (42).” Clearly, the new technology posed an existential threat to much of South Durham’s workers.


So, as the works progressed and residents upped the pressure, financial stresses in line with what HS2 is currently experiencing began to appear. On Sept. 19, 1825, the general committee presented its shareholders with a report explaining that costs had exceeded their engineer’s estimate. A major part of the excess spending was due to damages-payments to tenants and land-purchase. Additionally, unforeseen issues in construction blew up the price of construction (63).


The total cost for the reimbursement of tenants at this date was £25,000 ($2,920,980.02 currently) (63). This was £18,000 ($2,103,105.46 currently) over budget. Though the scale is far smaller, this is comparable to HS2’s massive budget-ballooning. Perhaps then, it is fair to say that there is some precedent for land-surveying and project-planning to go awry, underestimating the amount of roadblocks a massive project can encounter, leading to an inevitable inflation in the budget. However, one may point out that HS2 was not created in 1825 and that High Speed Two Ltd. has the historical precedent to inform their plans, government mandate and initial budget necessary to avoid the level of near-sightedness that the earliest railroaders experienced. Thus, its budgetary-expansion was not necessarily inevitable.


Leading up to the official public opening of the railway on Sept. 17, 1825 all meaningful opposition had been overcome, as it had all been successfully quelled in the prior, tumultuous years. The world’s first official passenger train journey occurred on Sept. 26, 1825, when members of the Stephenson and Pease’s team rode down from Shildon to Darlington (54-55). And the rest is history.




Our brief historical analogue to HS2 presents both a compelling narrative and some notable contrasts that allow us to contextualise HS2’s issues.


The financing of the railway from Darlington to Stockton has some parallels to that of HS2. Compensation for land and unforeseen obstacles contributed a large amount to excess spending in both cases. HS2’s budget specifically is rising rapidly due to miscalculated land valuations and incorrectly-predicted ground conditions.


However, these miscalculations are not entirely comparable. The railway from Stockton to Darlington was privately funded, accountable only to individuals. It was also constructed nearly 200 years ago, as one of the earliest public rail projects and the very first to employ a locomotive. HS2 is a taxpayer-backed scheme which owes the public bang for its buck. Thus, budget-inflation in HS2’s case is far more concerning and less justified.


This discrepancy is why, even though Stephenson and Pease’s experiment had no precedent and was far more precarious, it still did not come close to being entirely slashed. Conversely, HS2’s future is very uncertain because of its rapacious spending coupled with its public mandate. While construction is yet to begin, as of Sept. 18, 2019 “more than £7.4bn [had] already been spent on the line, including the cost of expropriating 900 homes, farms and properties at a cost of £2.2bn


Additionally, the act of paying for land may not be entirely comparable either, as Lords such as Eldon had direct influence on the decision to make or break the railway from Stockton to Darlington. At least part of the excess expenditure was effectively extortion to ensure that the project would go ahead. It was seemingly unavoidable. On the other hand, HS2 simply failed to accurately calculate the value of the land it was to buy out.


While the similarities between the two infrastructure projects end there (since environmental concerns were all-but-ignored in the 1820s), it helps confirm what I doubt many was unconvinced of: HS2 has been grossly inefficient. The project is currently under review; Boris Johnson’s government will decide whether the project is worth the massive sum that remains in its growing budget. However, I would hope that readers of this piece do not conflate mad management with a lack of need for a project like HS2 in the U.K. Articles such as this one make the case that HS2 is a necessity for Britain’s railway system.


So, until the review is completed, this historical foray will have to sate our desire for rail-related drama.