The only ministerial decision for which Michael Portillo is remembered is the reprieve he gave to the Settle-Carlisle railway. It was in 1989 and Portillo says the decision was ‘his greatest achievement in politics’. Certainly it did his career no harm. If he had sanctioned the closure, he would never have fronted the great railway journeys programmes, a series which now runs to a staggering 115 episodes with more to come.
The line’s still very active supporters have just celebrated the 25 anniversary of this momentous decision whose significance went well beyond the Cumbria and North Yorkshire. It actually signified the end of any attempt in this country to close railway lines. It was, in fact, an anomaly. Even by the early 1980s, the Beeching cuts had long run their course and the mood around closures had changed. The Serpell report which had recommended even more Draconian cuts than Beeching was rejected following a public outcry but British Rail pursued the Settle-Carlisle closure on the grounds that the costs of maintaining it were not affordable given its low use. The supposedly crumbling state of the Ribblehead Viaduct made the line uneconomic, according to BR.
The stage was set for the biggest battle waged by opponents of closures and their success, thanks in part to Mr Portillo (though he was probably bowing to the inevitable given the zeitgeist) spelt the end of any attempt to shut down lines. This episode helped create a climate in which legislation for the privatisation of the railway passed just four years later made it so difficult to bring forward any closures that there have been none in the past twenty years, apart from a few tiny sections of track.
The Settle-Carlisle saga which stretched over eight years demonstrated a point which has often been stressed in this column – politics govern the railway. That is inevitable for an industry that is such a vital part of the nation’s infrastructure and yet which requires considerable public sector funding to survive and thrive. It also highlighted the key role played by campaigners which is just as significant today.
I was struck, as I mentioned recently (Rail 738), by how the long term campaign for east –west rail, the line between Oxford and Cambridge eventually bore fruit. After years of hammering against a variety of brick walls, the scheme seemed suddenly to tick all the right boxes and work is now proceeding on the first section from Oxford to Bletchley. Without the campaign, this would never have happened.
There has been another surprising success recently on the Marshlink that runs between Ashford in Kent and Hastings thanks largely to the campaign by Railfuture (I declare an interest – I am the honorary president of Railfuture). The line has long been a Cinderella of the railway, one of the few remaining sections of the network in southern England not to be electrified. It only survived Beeching by the skin of its teeth, mainly because in 1970 when it was due to be closed, a bus licence that was due to provide the alternative means of travel was not granted because (as related by David Henshaw in his superb The Great Railway Conspiracy) the road was deemed to be too bad. A few years later, the oil crisis led BR to reprieve it along with several other lines and its survival was helped by the fact that the line served the atomic power station at Dungeness.
Reprieve, however, did not mean that there would be investment. Quite the contrary. The line was singled and services were infrequent. While the line between Hastings and Tonbridge was electrified, despite which the 65 mile journeys from Hastings to London still take over 100 minutes, the Marshlink line remained an anomaly with its diesel trains as three times plans to electrify it were set aside.
There was an improvement in 2003 when the 40 year old slam door stock was replaced with 170 Turbostars which have made services far more reliable but as a kind of warning to campaigners not to get above themselves, the Strategic Rail Authority cut the number of trains serving Appledore (subsequently reinstated) and reduced those to Winchelsea, Doleham and Three Oaks reduced to just three per day.
The campaigners which included other groups as well as Railfuture had long argued for electrification and the return of selective double tracking to allow a half hourly service between Hastings and Ashford rather than the current hourly, and electrification. However, the business case did not stack up, or rather ‘the computer said no’. The campaigners however were not deterred and commissioned a report by consultant Jonathan Roberts into improving rail services across East Sussex.
Lots of things started moving in the right direction: The climate at East Sussex County Council, an organisation that had previously been quite hostile to rail, changed with the election of a new leader, Keith Glazier, who wanted to improve rail services in the country. A controversial road scheme, the £113m Bexhill – Hastings link road was given the go ahead and is currently being built, putting pressure on local politicians to do something for rail. Amber Rudd, the Hastings MP, too, became involved. Hastings is actually a marginal, one of Labour’s few seats in the south until Ms Rudd captured it with a majority of just under 2,000 in 2010. She convened a local rail summit in March and managed to convince the Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, to attend. He wouldn’t have travelled down there just for the ride and so clearly something was afoot. He duly announced that he would like to see the line electrified and served by Javelin trains from Ashford. This would cut the journey time from London down to 68 minutes and prove an enormous economic boost for Hastings. With the creation of a loop at Rye, a half hourly service would be possible.
So what changed? Well, the key was that while electrification or redoubling on their own did not have a business case, it both were carried out together with the introduction of high speed trains from St Pancras, suddenly the business case becomes positive. Regular readers will know of my scepticism about business cases but in this instance reducing the journey time so dramatically should have a big impact on a very deprived area. (In fact, I say ‘should because’ it is time that a detailed study was carried out on the impact of High Speed One on towns such as Folkestone and Margate where services were speeded up with the introduction of Javelin trains.)
All this is not going to happen overnight. It is slated for Control Period 6, the five year investment programme that will start in 2019. There are many pitfalls ahead, including the notorious eight stage GRIP system that is a requirement for Network Rail investment schemes. Nevertheless, it is considerable progress and marks a sea change in attitude to a neglected part of the railway. This process of how a campaign achieves success is fascinating. Why do some founder and others win through? There is an element of luck – the external conditions like the marginality of a seat help. But the tactics of the campaign can be crucial, too. The local spokesman for Railfuture, Chris Page, reckons there are lessons for other groups: ‘We took things slowly, arguing for incremental change rather than demanding everything at once, and we always saw ourselves as a partnership, keeping communication open with other organisations, like the local council, which at times were not supportive. Now they are.’ The lesson from 25 years ago or last month is the same – keep plugging away and who knows, you might hit the jackpot one day. This tale shows there are lots of winnable schemes out there even in these times of austerity.