Titfield Thunderbolt lives again

Any mention of the idea of reopening branch lines immediately leads to massive media to interest with inevitable mentions of the Titfield Thunderbolt and the crimes of Richard Beeching. In an interesting initiative, the Association of Train Operating Companies has suggested a series of lines that could be reopened and new stations which could be served by adding stations to existing routes. For a mere £500m, according to ATOC, 14 small towns could be linked to the network and a further seven given a station.

This idea, based on a simple piece of analysis by ATOC, attracted huge publicity and, of course, was widely supported by local people who would benefit from the new services. However, while it is great to see ATOC take a proactive role for once, rather than merely issuing anodyne press releases, the very complexity of the rail network after privatisation means that there would have to be a lot more work and lobbying for this to become anything other than a canny bit of PR

Let’s go back to the start. The railways were created in the 19th century by an arbitrary process of private promoters seeking to make a profit out of new lines. By the mid 20th century, in the face of competition from the motor car, there were far too many lines and inevitably many had to be closed. But as we all know, the process went too far following the Beeching report and the failure of the Wilson government of the late 1960s to fulfil its manifesto commitment of reassessing the closures.

Since the 1970s, when there has been renewed interest in rail investment, some 300 stations and 300 miles of line have been reopened, but the process slowed down considerably after privatisation which increased the complexity and, in particular, the cost of this process. Since 1995, ATOC claims that there has been nearly 200 miles have been built (including High Speed One) or reopened, and 68 stations have been reopened, but the vast majority of these have been in areas with devolved authorities (London, Scotland, Wales) leaving very little in the rest of England.

The process of how the railway system was created and subsequently developed in this country has, therefore, been very haphazard in contrast to the networks in many European countries which were built according to strategic needs. While some areas benefit from a rail service that greatly exceeds their needs, others are under provided for and therefore it is highly commendable that ATOC should try to look at this systematically. There are many communities, which have grown up in the past forty years which desperately need a railway connection but were cut off in the days of Beeching.

The problem is that making any changes to the rail network is very difficult in today’s fragmented and privatised railway. First, funding has to be found for opening the line but then, possibly even more difficult, there would have to be negotiations with the local train operator, the Office of Rail Regulation, Network Rail and, of course, the Department for Transport with legal contracts having to be drawn up and subsidy arrangements created. One problem is that any extra revenue goes to the train operator who is unlikely to have paid anything towards the reopening. The exception is Chiltern which has a 20 year franchise which therefore allows the company to make such investments.

Just to make things more difficult, Network Rail already has a list of enhancements it is planning to carry out in Control Period 4, which stretches from this year to 2014 and none of these schemes are on it. The sums involved are quite considerable, with one scheme, the Leamside line near Newcastle, costing £86m but the business case – based on the ratio of benefit to cost – is strong in every example.

Nevertheless, finding this money will not be easy. There is almost an infinite number of schemes on the railway with good business cases – a dubious methodology at the best of times – but the pot of money is finite. Already, there are several major schemes to which the government appears to be committed, such as Crossrail, Thameslink, the refurbishment of Reading and Birmingham stations, the East London Line and the Intercity Express Programme of replacement trains for the High Speed 125s. That is a huge agenda, and there are doubts whether, in the light of the recession, all these will actually materialise. So the prospects of earmarking a further £500m for small lines that may be vital to their communities but will not carry many people are thin.

Unwittingly, ATOC has highlighted the way that in today’s fragmented railway, making such changes has become ever more difficulty. There are, indeed, many communities that would benefit by being connected to the railway but, unfortunately, the mechanisms to bring this about are complex and the price may well be prohibitive. One of the problems is the way that railway funding in Britain is centralised. In many countries on the Continent – notably France, Sweden, Italy and Germany – there are powerful regional authorities who invest in local rail because they are popular and well supported politically. Here, everything is ultimately determined by the Department for Transport making decisions that affect people hundreds of miles away from Whitehall and it is no coincidence that it is in the devolved authorities that most reopenings have taken place.

Even if these schemes are unlikely to materialise in the near future, let’s at least make sure that at least the routes are safeguarded against prospective developers. The researchers found a number of potentially useful rail corridors which were now blocked by buildings or other structures, making them unusable and, as the authors say, it is essential that they are protected because they may be ‘of future strategic significance’. The Tories have, interestingly, already promised to do this – can Labour make a matching commitment?

ATOC’s report is called Connecting Communities, expanding access to the rail network.

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