The Liverpool Road railway station in Manchester, dating from 1830, is the oldest surviving mainline station in the world.
Along with the surrounding Victorian track structures – including a Grade I listed brick viaduct designed by George Stephenson – it has been described by English Heritage as the railway equivalent of Stonehenge.
But Network Rail is prepared to cause what it admits will be “substantial harm” to parts of this historic setting – the terminus of the acclaimed Liverpool and Manchester Railway – by building a 3,600-foot viaduct called the Ordsall Chord just above it.
The £132m viaduct is the pivot-point in a wider £600m rail modernisation scheme called the Northern Hub, delivering a straight-through service between Manchester’s Victoria, Oxford Road, and Piccadilly stations, and substantially improving services across the north of England.
The trade-off between substantial harm to historic structures and public benefit is at the heart of a Department of Transport inquiry into the Ordsall Chord which is due to end next week.
The Northern Hub will ultimately handle 700 more trains a year, carrying 44 million extra passengers, generating up to 30,000 new jobs and bringing £46bn of “wider economic benefits” to the region. Part of that gain will come from the development of the Middlewood Locks site, immediately northwest of the Ordsall Chord, by Scarborough Developments.
Sir Neil Cossons, a past chairman of English Heritage, says Network Rail’s handling of the design and consultation of the Ordsall Chord is “fundamentally flawed”. He told the inquiry it might not be fully competent as “the responsible owner of an historic estate of such critical importance”.
Cue David and Goliath. The Ordsall Chord was on the verge of being waved through by both Network Rail and Salford City Council until Mark Whitby, an eminent British engineer whose projects have included Tate Modern, agitated for a public inquiry.
Mr Whitby took part in Network Rail’s design review panel for the Ordsall Chord in 2012, and he feared the proposed track alignment would obliterate views of Stephenson’s viaduct and the heritage value of historic rail infrastructure around it.
English Heritage was not consulted by Network Rail until after the alignment of the new viaduct had been selected. English Heritage’s expert witness, Andrew Davison, told the inquiry that the proposed viaduct cut straight across Stephenson’s bridge, requiring the removal or modification of listed structures associated with Liverpool Road station, which closed in 1975. This, he said, would rupture their meaning as a uniquely historic collection of parts.
Network Rail agreed to examine other viaduct alignments, and Mr Whitby developed an alternative scheme, Option 15, as an example. This would create a new, north-running viaduct and realign the Ordsall Chord so that it started on the western side of Stephenson’s bridge, allowing the original railway line through Liverpool Road station to connect to the new structure.
The alternative scheme leaves Stephenson’s bridge undisturbed and in full view; and a substantial chunk of the Middlewood Locks development would remain east-facing and openly connected with Manchester, rather than cut off from the city by Network Rail’s proposed alignment of the viaduct alongside the Trinity Way inner ring road.
Scarborough Developments, which owns Middlewood Locks, says Option 15 is not commercially viable because it would put two viaducts across the land, complicating the connection between building plots. The current alignment of the Ordsall Chord leaves Scarborough with a virtually clear site on which to maximise building density, and profitability.
The inquiry is much more than a local firefight about history versus 21st century progress. The Department for Transport’s decision on the scheme will be of national significance, because it will set a critical precedent on how railway modernisation can treat important historic fabric.
At a time of rapid infrastructure renewals, Sir Neil fears that Network Rail – despite triumphs such as the restoration and modernisation of the Grade I listed King’s Cross station – is not fully equipped to understand heritage sites.
He said: “Without the capacity internally to reconcile the voices of the past, and the responsibilities that attend them, with the necessities of today and tomorrow, Network Rail’s proposals cannot in my view be regarded as forming a credible basis for the future.”