Rail 383: The railway should hang on to its land of hope for the future

When the rump of British Rail quietly restarted land and property sales last autumn, it provoked uproar from the rail lobby. The Government has made some concessions, but there is still a presumption that sales should go ahead unless there are valid objections. CHRISTIAN WOLMAR calls for an indefinite ban on sales of sites where there’s even a glimmer of a possibility of future transport-related use.

The carcass of what was once British Rail is now, mostly, a property company. Its principal remit for the past two years has been to sell property and it is under a legal obligation, like all Government agencies, to maximise the proceeds.

The sell-off strategy obviously did not fit in with new Labour’s ambitions for the rail industry and therefore the Government announced a moratorium on sales in the White Paper published in 1998. BR then ‘consulted a large number’ of organisations to identify sites ‘with a realistic prospect for use in the foreseeable future’. But then, quietly, the sales process was restarted last autumn. A letter from the BRB to Transport 2000 last September said sales of sites for both transport and non-transport purposes would go ahead. Local authorities and rail companies were to be given 14 days’ warning of the Board’s intention to sell and given the opportunity to seek a two-month delay to prepare a bid for transport use.

Not surprisingly, this caused something of an uproar. The whole thrust seemed to be about getting rid of as many sites as quickly as possible rather than considering their potential long-term value for transport.

The problem is that the soothing words about giving the rail industry and local authorities the opportunity to object mask a rather more complex situation. Transport projects are notoriously complex and long-term. So the difficulty is determining what might be potentially of use to the rail industry in, say, ten or 20 years time.

With the presumption still in favour of sales unless there are objections, many of the rail industry’s supporters were worried that potentially valuable sites would be lost for ever. After all, who, ten years ago, would have thought the railways would be experiencing their biggest boom in a generation as we enter a new century, and that the industry would be gearing itself up for expansion after decades of managed decline? As Lord Berkeley of the Railfreight Group put it: “For decades railway officials have been running the railway in terms of managing a decline. It is very difficult for them to change that ingrained attitude.”

Indeed, to show how fluid the situation is, remember that when BR was privatised, all the operational land and any other plots that had a realistic potential of being used for transport purposes went to Railtrack. BR only retained land which was thought not to have any use for the railway. Yet now, after its consultation, the Board has accepted that 200 out of its 1,400 sites may have transport potential, which suggests that, over time, the situation may change again.

In the debate on the Transport Bill in Parliament last month, Michael Moore, the Liberal Democrat MP for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale, hit the nail on the head when he said: “The thinking was not that – quite rightly – some form of consultation was taking place, but that the sales process was under way and therefore everything that was there to be marketed could and should be marketed.”

Mr Moore went on to point out that putting a block on these sales was, in practice, quite difficult. The only way to prevent them, he said, was for the “rail operators, Railtrack, local transport authorities and local authorities to come up with a fully funded project that might get a look-in in the sales process”. Such schemes are already incredibly difficult to develop and see through to fruition in the disaggregated and privatised railway, which is why the number of station reopenings and openings has dropped dramatically. Moreover, the vision of transport operators with short franchises is bound to be limited and they may well not consider expressing an interest for a site if they cannot see its potential within a relatively short time-frame, say a couple of years.

Mr Moore highlighted a couple of examples. One of the sites offered for sale by BR is a plot at North Quay in Newhaven which is on the Trans-European Rail Network. Connex has expressed interest in amalgamating the three railway stations in the town using that land and EWS has hopes of rail freight there. As Mr Moore put it: “The fact that cash will have to be found from local authorities and other sources to prevent the sale of that land is causing great alarm.”

Another site he highlighted is the Abbeyhill loop in Edinburgh which could figure in plans to relieve overcrowding on the East Coast Main Line but has been the subject of a bid from a housing developer.

The Government has moved somewhat, in response to this pressure. Keith Hill, the junior minister who used to work for the RMT and therefore knows a thing or two about his brief, attempted to be as emollient as possible. He stressed that the interested parties would be able to appeal to the Secretary of State for Transport should they be concerned that the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) was not preventing a sale and, most important, that the SRA would be able to hold land for strategic purposes.

The SRA, which will take over any BR land not sold when it comes into official existence when the Transport Bill is passed in the autumn, is also stressing that there is nothing to worry about as it is now prepared to hold land for 20 years if necessary. The examples mentioned in Parliament are being retained, according to Alan Nicholls, its Strategy and Planning Director, who stressed to me that the authority ‘has all the powers we need’.

Yet there remain doubts about whether all this goes far enough, particularly as Mr Hill was reluctant to put anything specific into the Bill. The underlying point is that there is still a presumption for sales to go ahead unless there is a good reason not to, and even then rail interests have to come up with a plan and possibly even cash. That is the wrong way around.

Lord Berkeley, who is now back in the House of Lords after being made a life peer earlier this year, is going to raise the matter when the Transport Bill is considered by the Lords in a few weeks’ time. He said: “I would like to see an amendment which removes the obligation on BR to sell at the highest price.”

Mr Hill stated he was not in favour of selling land cheaply to transport interests but, rather, wanted any subsidy to be shown clearly as money coming from the SRA. This shows he has been nobbled by the Treasury, which has always promoted this line and fails to understand market forces. Providing land cheaply in these circumstances is a much better way of subsiding schemes, precisely because it is hidden. It is naïve of BR and ministers to say plots must be sold at market value, because the market price varies enormously depending on what planning permission is likely to be granted.

Graham Smith, the Planning Director of EWS who reckons there are about 60 sites with transport potential, points out that it is unlikely transport interests can pay the same for a site as, say, Tesco or Barratt Homes. He said there had been unseemly haste in BR’s plans as EWS was given just two months to look at the potential of some 600 sites: “There have been some sites already lost. We are not asking for the earth. We think that these sales should be stopped and we hope there will be explicit legislation to that effect.”

There is, too, the question of Railtrack’s land. Lord Berkeley is concerned that there is a temptation for Railtrack to sell at the highest price, irrespective of the needs of users. The Regulator is considering making it a licence condition on Railtrack, which also has an active sales programme, to impose controls on the disposal of land. However, Mr Hill refused to allow an amendment to the Bill which would have given the SRA first refusal at a transport-related price on any land being sold by Railtrack, because of the administrative burden this would have caused. Again, this seems rather timid.

Of course, there are lots of bits of old bridge in the middle of nowhere which should be sold off, and which in fact have a negative value, but shouldn’t there be a simple guiding principle – anything next to the railway, or which forms part of a potential route, should be withheld from sale indefinitely or used only on short-term leases for cheap buildings such as warehouses? The cost would be minimal. The 60 sites which might have freight potential are worth some £23m, according to EWS. After all, the Government has just received £22bn as an unexpected windfall for the sale of the mobile phone licences so it is hardly bothered about a few million here or there. Can’t it just put a long-term ban on any land sales with even the hint of potential transport use?

Coach crash is no news

The remarkable difference in press coverage between rail and road accidents is often a source of bewilderment for rail supporters. Normally this is dismissed by news editors and reporters as a failure to understand the difference between public and private forms of transport.

Because you have no control over your chances of having an accident when you are on public transport, the argument goes, then higher standards have to pertain. And when something goes wrong, it is a ‘great story’ as we saw with the two most recent rail disasters, at Southall and Ladbroke Grove. And in the ensuing blanket coverage, basic information such as the fact that rail is some 100 times safer (see my column in RAIL 367 for an explanation) is often disregarded.

But what about coaches? They are another form of public transport which, admittedly, has a good safety record but occasionally has accidents with fatal results. One such crash occurred in March when a National Express coach crashed on the M6 near Wigan, killing the driver and injuring 40 passengers, at least four of them ‘seriously’. The coach apparently went into the back of a lorry on the southbound carriageway.

The site of the accident was less than 25 miles from that of the Winsford train crash last year, when a Virgin train ran into the back of a Pacer which had gone through a red light, in which no-one was killed or seriously hurt. Yet the disparity in coverage could not have been greater. The coach accident did not feature on the BBC 9 O’clock News and barely made it into the following day’s papers. And that was it. The Winsford train crash, in contrast, was front-page news, and I did a number of TV and radio interviews that day. No-one phoned me about the coach.

And did the share prices plummet in the way that Railtrack’s did in the aftermath of Ladbroke Grove? Of course not, because National Express will not have to spend millions on improving the M6 so that such accidents are less likely in the future. But you can bet your bottom dollar that if National Express had killed someone in a train accident involving one of its five rail franchises, there would have been blanket coverage.

Do any readers have thoughts about why the treatment of these accidents was so different?

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