At first glance the choice of Milton Keynes as the new headquarters of Network Rail seems eccentric.
Look a little closer and the move is a sound one, as Andy Milne reports.
Once derided as a concrete and plastic tribute to sixties designer angst, Milton Keynes has all the vibrancy and energy of a younger town, spangled with bright lights, loud with clubs and theatres.
Restaurants and shopping malls serve a fast growing population that needs several schools and colleges to keep pace with it’s unfolding demographics. The railway stations around MK do brisk business with an army of commuters, business travellers, students and foreign visitors.
Milton Keynes sits at the heart of the modern railway network on the West Coast Main Line. Connections to Bedford from Bletchley and the historic works at Wolverton cement the city firmly into the modern, expanding railway.
Away from the centre Milton Keynes abounds in quiet tree shaded suburbs threaded with canals and cycle routes. Local motorists may complain of the innumerable roundabouts in the city’s grid style street lay out but the effect is to reduce traffic speed and give priority to cyclists and pedestrians.
Living in a green city of over 20 million trees, grass meadows, parks and lakes where you can cycle to work has proved attractive to 230,000 people who now live there.
Back in the sixties a planning team under Richard Llewelyn-Davies managed to avoid the concrete ghettos bequeathed to other London overspill towns. From the start the emphasis was on ease of communication and local centres – as opposed to the concentric ribbon developments that cluster round many expanded cities. Work started in 1967.
The first of around 3,000 people move into Network Rail’s new national centre in Milton Keynes this summer. Moving so many people to a single location will save Network Rail tens of millions of pounds a year in office rental costs, helping cut the cost of the railway.
David Higgins, Network Rail chief executive, emphasised the supportive role of the new headquarters. ‘The national centre is at the heart of our plans to improve the way we work and will help deliver a better and more efficient railway for passengers and freight.
‘We’ll be bringing 3,000 people who play an integral part in the running of the railway into one location, complementing the changes we have already made to our business to bring us closer to our customers and more responsive to their needs.’
Power in Network Rail has been devolved to front line route directors with the organisation at MK providing strategic back up and guidance. ‘This is an exciting time for the rail industry. Over the next ten years, Britain’s rail traffic will increase by around a third, making ours the fastest growing railway in Europe.
The railway is vital to Britain’s future economic success, connecting commerce and communities across the country. Our people based in Milton Keynes will play an integral part in its transformation.’
The new building sits on the site of the former national hockey stadium. Although many of the 3,000 people moving to the Quadrant: MK are existing employees relocating to the area Network Rail is recruiting 700 more staff locally. The rail industry will bring both modernity and tradition to the city.
When the London and Birmingham Railway was originally opened back in 1838 the mid way point was deemed to be Wolverton – at the time a small village – now a northern part of the new city.
In an era of corridor-less trains, passengers needed to get out and in railway parlance take a personal needs break. Engines had to be attended to and a sizeable depot grew up at Wolverton. The tight curve on the main line is still notorious among drivers.
Although much reduced the Railcare depot survives to this day and is the home of the Royal Train. The reason it looks so smart is in large part down to the skill of staff at Wolverton.
By contrast with Wolverton and its Royal Train a more infamous chapter in railway history played out down the line south of Milton Keynes at Bridego Bridge a mile out of Leighton Buzzard.
On Thursday 8th August 1963 robbers held up the south bound Glasgow mail and made off with £2.4 million. Ronnie Biggs, the getaway driver, later escaped prison and became notorious. The train itself had stopped at Bletchley station to take on more mail.
Driver Bill Green recalls talking to Jack Mills, the driver of the ill-fated mail train, who Green knew quite well. Later, arriving with his train at Leighton Buzzard, Bill decided, after consultation with a puzzled signalman, to walk forward along the track.
‘We could see the mail train carriages stopped on the up fast,’ said Bill who courageously rescued Jack Mills – bloodied and dazed – and raised the alarm.
Bletchley remains a busy commuter station. For many years the staff association club across the forecourt was a haven for railway workers as important in its way as the award winning TMD over the metals.
The Bedford-Bletchley line, now renamed the Marston Vale Community Rail Partnership, is the last surviving element of the Varsity Line which once linked Oxford and Cambridge. It never closed as local bus companies refused to commit to a paid for rail replacement service.
Happily plans are afoot to reopen the line down to Bicester through Verney Junction and Claydon. This will enable through services between Oxford and Bedford to operate once more.
As well as reopening traditional railway lines it is worth noting Buckinghamshire, from which Milton Keynes sprung, will play uneasy host to High Speed Two powering along a few miles west of the city.
Milton Keynes Central itself opened on 17th May 1982, an intercity station with direct connections to London Euston, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow. Services via the West London line link MK with Croydon.
High quality railway staff
One final observation about the wisdom of moving to Milton Keynes has to be the high quality of railway staff locally. At MK Central they have proved unfailingly supportive and good humoured down the years.
One personal story bears this out. Years ago a taxi carrying a one time RailStaff reporter, Paula Sergeant, was involved in a car crash in Milton Keynes up on Midsummer Boulevard. I was in Crewe that day and alerted by mobile phone by the police.
Paula was unharmed but quite shaken up. All I could think of to do was call up a pal of mine at Milton Keynes Central. The police dropped Paula off at the station where ticket office staff took her in, sat her down and plied her with hot sweet tea.
They then put her on a train to Northampton where she lived. Her boyfriend hot footed it to Castle Station and took her home. Staff at MK didn’t have to do this but Paula was, however tenuously, a part of the railway family and they put themselves out for her that day.
I have never forgotten their kindness. Taken together with convivial evenings with Bill and Delia Green – herself a feature writer for RailStaff – at Bletchley BRSA and the decision by Network Rail to relocate to a place redolent with railway values, courage, tradition and expertise seems inspired indeed.