‘Why don’t they reopen those lines closed by Beeching’ is a constant refrain on radio phone-ins on which I have appeared. It does seem so logical. The roads are overcrowded, railway travel is booming and there is now the successful example of the Borders railway where passenger numbers have far exceeded predictions.
The issue has being picked up in the national media and transcends political boundaries because it combines nostalgia with environmentalism. In an elegiac article in the New Statesman, the right wing commentator Simon Heffer laments the fact that so few lines have been reopened and suggests that the money being spent on HS2 would be better invested in reopening old lines.
Leaving aside the issue of HS2 for another day, railway reopenings have been going since even before the days of Beeching. The new edition of Britain’s Growing Railway which has just been produced by Railfuture (declaration of interest as I am its honorary president) lists half a dozen stations reopened in 1960 and the first line to be taken out of mothballs was the 21 kms between Barassie – Kilmarnock in 1969. The book, an update of one published nearly a decade ago, lists a total of 400 stations and 950kms of track that have been reopened (it includes a few sections of new track and a handful of entirely new stations) in the past half century.
Interestingly Scotland and Wales have benefitted disproportionately from station reopenings with 100 and 56 respectively of the 400, a result of the fact that they both have devolved authorities which have responded to local pressure to support rail schemes. Indeed, most of these reopenings have occurred because of local campaigns of rail enthusiasts and transport campaigners. Their efforts range from holding garden fetes and sponsoring bricks to serious lobbying of local authorities and stakeholder conferences to bring together all local stakeholders to push for action.
In a way, this is great, the sort of Big Society effort once promoted, all too briefly, by David Cameron when he was Prime Minister. Yet, it also betrays the fact that there is no coherent thinking in government circles about expanding the railway and making rail travel accessible to swathes of the population currently not connected to the network. When I speak to local groups – I am always happy to go round the country to address meetings since I invariably learn a lot – I am struck by how the haphazard process of pushing through a reopening scheme. So much depends on the attitude of the local authority, or perhaps nowadays the Local Enterprise Partnership, the unelected bodies which have filched much of the local and regional funding available for investment schemes, to a particular scheme. If the wrong people are in power or even if there is a particularly obstructive politician, worthwhile projects can end up being shelved for years or even canned permanently. On the other hand, if there is a strong champion in the local authority or a particularly effective and well-connected campaigner, doors can be unlocked far more quickly than might be expected.
In the half century since Beeching, the biggest change has been the recognition by most of the political and administrative classes that railways are ‘a good thing’ and deserve investment.
There is a long list of potential reopenings, many of lines currently used by freight only, that have enormously high benefit cost ratios which are necessary for any scheme to be endorsed by government. The Campaign for Better Transport recently produced a list of the 10 best projects but there are many others that would be worthwhile.
So what is preventing Simon Heffer’s dream from coming true, with reopenings springing up around the country? First, there is the high cost of work and the sloth like progress of any scheme through the sludge of the aptly named Network Rail GRIP (Governance for Railway Industry Projects) which seems to be a way of killing off projects or doubling their costs. Many schemes founder on GRIP’s rocks because there is no particular incentive for Network Rail to take them on. Extra bits of railway are a hassle for Network Rail and therefore why should it want more tracks to maintain? This raises the second point, on the lack of a railway champion to push forward projects. Sure, occasionally there is an innovative local authority or Local Enterprise Board which understand the role rail could play in regenerating local business but there is no national agency to promote the cause of the railways.
As pointed out in Britain’s Growing Railway, in 2009 the Association of Train Operating Companies (now the ridiculously named Rail Delivery Group) produced a 24 page document called Connecting Communities – Expanding access to the rail network which identified 75 towns in England with a population of 15,000 that were not rail connected. After some analysis, 14 of these places were identified as having a strong business case, but after that the initiative foundered because there was no one to champion it. The government has no strategy on expanding rail. It is prepared to spend £70bn or more on HS2 or £1.8bn on widening a stretch of the A14 but not a few tens of millions here and there to provide a strong local economic boost through a renewed rail connection. For the railways, ministers advocate an adhoc approach, through which local stakeholders put forward schemes but with no strategic oversight. Some get through by sheer chance, or with the sudden discovery of a pot of money, while others, possibly far more beneficial never see the light of day.
Almost every issue I raise every fortnight in these columns leads me to the conclusion that the railway, which is suffering a crisis of confidence with the cuts in the electrification programme and the impending reductions to the investment programme that will be announced later this year, needs a guiding mind, a fat controller able to make strategic long term decisions. Network Rail is clearly not fit for that role, nor obviously is the Department for Transport which is responsible for a host of basic errors such as the commissioning of the hugely expensive IEP train. My plea therefore, and one that the Labour party should endorse, is to create a new version of the Strategic Rail Authority, this time both strategic and with authority, to promote and lead the industry.
Quality rules in the South
One of the biggest ever shocks in the franchising bidding process was the victory of FirstGroup over Stagecoach in the contest for what was previously known as South West Trains. First, encouraged by the Department which wants to see traditional names for the franchises, has renamed it South Western Railway and given it a rather dowdy new livery that is all greys and off blues with little logo that only makes sense to those familiar with the map of the franchise’s routes. The train at the launch event arrived a few minutes late which is not a good augury for the franchise.
In fact, the launch event itself was a few days late since the official handover date was in the middle of the semi-closure of the station for the platform extension works. That seemed an odd choice by the Department but in fact did not cause much extra difficulty. The task ahead for the new franchise which is 30 per cent owned by MTR (an arrangement that the two companies made in the middle of the bidding process) is in fact rather more challenging.
The company actually won the bid not because it was offering the highest premium payment, as Stagecoach had bid higher, but because of the improvements First offered to passengers. There is certainly a lot on offer but as a company insider intimated to me, it takes two years before any real progress can be changed. Good luck to First if it can succeed but its biggest challenge will be industrial relations. New trains are being ordered and it is the role of the guard on these services about which RMT is already beginning to raise concerns. The union wants assurances that there will be no change in status like the downgrading of the role introduced by neighbouring Southern. If a similar dispute breaks out, First will have no chance of bringing about the step change improvements in service it has promised.
This is where First boss Tim O’Toole will have to use all his experience from his former role at London Underground. He will be well acquainted with the way that the Overground quietly dispensed with guards, by negotiating over a long period with the unions. Apparently, I have been told, the late Bob Crow, then the union’s general secretary came to a secret deal that he would OK the deal after a token one day strike. Peace reigned thereafter.