Nothing encapsulates the current dilemmas on the railway than the fate of the Marston Vale line which is a 16 mile link running between Bletchley and Bedford, linking the Midland Main Line with the West Coast. In fact, the present problems with the line which has suffered three lengthy closures since the start of the pandemic are an interesting contrast to what is supposed to be its rosy future when it becomes part of the reopened Oxford – Cambridge line, known as East West rail. And even with the big investment plans, there are key issues to resolve.
The line has a long history, having been built before what is now the Midland Main Line to allow the affluent Bedford merchants easy access to the London & Birmingham railway. The project garnered the support of the Duke of Bedford and opened in 1846. Patronage initially built up slowly until the end of the century when it started to be heavily used by both the workers and the produce from the local brickworks which studded the area. When that traffic start to die out in the 1960s, the line survived several attempts at closure and notably it was only saved in 1973 when the local bus company proved unable to provide the replacement services required in the closure proposal process.
Famously, an overpass was built at Bletchley to allow freight trains travelling on the Varsity Line between Wales and the East Coast to avoid crossing the West Coast Main Line as part of the British Rail Modernisation Plan. Completed in 1959, the expected large freight flows from the Welsh coal mines never materialised because a nearby sidings was not completed in a typical bodged bit of planning, and consequently the freight trains used other routes. It was therefore little used and was closed for passenger traffic in 1968 and for goods 25 years later though used by a few freight trains since 2006. When I was met at Bletchley by Dick Crane, who has campaigned for improvements to the Marston Vale line since those early attempts at closure, he pointed out that the overpass, has had to be extensively rebuilt in preparation for the reopening of the Oxford – Cambridge line and includes a high level station above the existing one. This work was completed in May even though trains are not expected to run between Oxford and Bletchley until 2024.
Crane is aghast that what amounts to a three figure cost of millions has been spent on these improvements and yet the line through to Bedford has been closed three times since the onset of Covid. In fact, the line shut just before Xmas and now, London Northwestern Railway, the current operator, has told Rail it will not reopen until late February at the earliest because of shortage of drivers due to Covid and the lack of training that took place at the height of the pandemic.
Instead, there are replacement buses but these are barely used. Crane counted just one passenger on the five buses that passed as he had arrived at Bletchley early to greet me: ‘People are just not interested in using the bus. It takes an hour and a half to reach Bedford, just 16 miles away, because they have to take a very roundabout route to reach all the stations which are often tucked away far from the villages they are supposed to serve. The train takes just over 40 minutes from end to end and of course offers a much better quality service than the buses.’
He points out that when a partial service was reinstated last year, with 9 of the normal 17 return trips operated by train, people would time their journeys to make sure they got a train rather than a bus. While he understands that the recent increase in cases has caused difficulties, he thinks that not enough has been done to preserve the service. The buses are run by Abellio, the parent company of London Northwestern and he suggests that this is a nice cosy arrangement to make a tidy profit from the service: ‘It’s no skin off their nose. What I would like to know is who decides that they can stop running trains. I suspect this has the quiet backing of the Department for Transport.’
Crane, though, is preparing for a bigger battle and this goes to the heart of railway investment projects. The East West project team has put forward two alternative schemes for the service once the line is complete. Option one would involve retaining the current hourly stopping trains and adding a new limited stop East West Rail fast, stopping at just two stops and operating every 15 minutes. A couple of stations would need to be relocated but East West Rail are confident that this scenario is feasible.
The alternative would be much more radical – closing all the existing stations and consolidating them into five new ones, each trying to serve two groups of existing passengers. All five stations would have at least two East Wail services per hour. The consultation paper claims ‘this would mean communities have access to more frequent and faster services, direct to more locations’.
Crane however is dubious about this option. He is worried that as respondents to the consultation process may not live in the area, the views of locals, who are firmly in favour of the first option, may be drowned out. He adds: ‘Given the very basic station at Soham opened recently cost £18m, the cost of all these new ones will be astronomical’. Moreover, local people would mostly have to drive to them, which means that many would simply continue their journey by car.
Of course the current predicament of the Marston Vale line is overshadowed by cutbacks – though few closures – on many other lines across the network with far greater numbers of people being affected. Omicron is being blamed but, as the RMT union rightly point out, there is a real risk that these reductions in service will remain long after the pandemic has abated. This goes to the heart of the matter, the question that must be answered given the massive subsidies being spent on the railways: What are they for?’
I asked Dick Crane what he felt the purpose of the line was and he was quick to answer: ‘It’s a lifeline for local people, it gets people to work, it will serve the new housing being built in the area and there are several leisure attractions in the area which can easily be reached by rail. And there are the school trains which literally keep hundreds of cars off the road.’ That argument needs to be expressed loud and clear by politicians across the spectrum in these straitened times. Railways are all those things and have many more hidden benefits, which means their cost can be justified but not if the politicians and the industry’s leaders are silent.
Why is the history of railways so neglected
I have been commissioned by Atlantic Books to write a book on the role of the railways in the Normandy invasion and the subsequent sweep by the Allied troops through Northern Europe. It is a quite remarkable story. The French railways were all but completely destroyed by the combined action of Allied bombing and sabotage by the French Résistance in the run up to D-Day on June 6 1944, but played an absolutely vital role in ensuring that the advancing troops could be supplied iwth armaments, ammunition, food and everything else needed to maintain the assault. Indeed, at times, armies had to wait to ensure that the railway line of communication was complete before proceeding. Let me just give one example: the port of Cherbourg, the main transit point, carried 2.5 million tonnes of material between its reopening by the allies in July 1944 and the end of the year. Around 1.5 million tonnes, in other words 60 per cent, was carried through on the railways.
Yet pick up one of the numerous books – and gosh there are indeed very many of them – on D Day and its aftermath by illustrious historians and you will find that trains barely get a mention in the index.
This will be my ninth railway history book for Atlantic which deals with stories as diverse as the Underground, American railways, the Transsiberian and most recently London’s main railway stations. But if there is a theme that unites them, it is the fact that the importance of the railways in shaping history – whether it is of London, America or Russia – has often been ignored. For example, the Transsiberian was responsible for enabling Russia to beat the Germans in World War Two, the Underground ensured that London became the biggest city in the world by the end of the 19th century and the American civil war was won by the side with the better railway. I could go on but I wonder why so many historians
I will return to this theme in relation to the Normandy story in more detail later this year because it is a particularly egregious example of the neglect of the railways in history. But what I can’t understand is why?