Posted by: dorsetcpre | September 30, 2010

BEECHING in REVERSE: How practicable is it to reopen rail lines?

Closed Line

Closed Line

In June 2009 the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) published Connecting Communities – Expanding Access to the Rail Network, in which reopening some 35 lines was considered. In 2008 rail passenger numbers had reached the highest peacetime levels ever recorded but after a dip in the recession they are growing again, for example by 4.3% on South West Trains in the period to July. Now with huge cuts in public expenditure being announced can we really expect any further reopening of rail lines?By 1973 the Beeching closures had been all but completed, reducing the rail network from some 20,000 miles to 11,500 miles and leaving many sizeable towns without a railway. At the same time capacity on many of the remaining routes was reduced, for example by the singling of double track lines, as on the Salisbury-Exeter line. Relatively small sums would have been required to keep lines open compared with the costs of the replacement roads programme. Their closure did little to improve British Rail finances at the time; losses were principally being incurred on the core network, in main workshops, labour intensive freight depots and from over manning generally. Had costing been undertaken on the basis of modern traction and operating methods many more lines would have survived.

However, many people saw the cuts as too drastic and British Rail managed to reopen some 287 miles of track in the period to 1995 with the support of local authorities. In the South West this included the Trowbridge – Chippenham line, providing services from Salisbury to Swindon. But with privatisation in 1993 reopening came to an end, as other priorities were deemed more important. So it is significant and encouraging to see the issue again on the agenda. Dorset, excluding Bournemouth and Christchurch, had 42 stations in 1955; it now has 19. Not too bad you might say, in aggregate, but some important local towns, Blandford, Bridport and Wimborne, lost their railways and there is no railway remaining in East Dorset with its now much increased population.

Closed Station

Closed Station

Priorities for reopening, recently considered included branch lines, secondary routes and the plugging of gaps left in main lines, through closure of intermediate sections, for example between Manchester and Sheffield and Manchester and Derby. In the South West routes being considered for reopening include those to Hythe, Bordon and Ringwood in Hampshire, Cranleigh near Guildford and Portishead near Bristol. Also negotiations continue between interested parties on the Bere Alston-Tavistock line, which if successful would restore a service between Tavistock and Plymouth.

Reopening of the line from Ringwood to Brockenhurst would allow reintroduction of services to Southampton, serving a population of some 25,000, and generating a Benefit Cost Ratio (BCF) of 1.5 although the Treasury generally requires a minimum BCF of 1.5 for approval. The formation, mostly through the New Forest, is still largely intact; provision of track, signalling and stations is estimated to cost £70 million, rather less than the Weymouth Relief Road or St Ives bus way! As we know the population of Ringwood and SE Dorset has grown hugely in the last 40 years. Before the Beeching closures the line continued from Ringwood to Wimborne and Poole, joining the similarly closed Poole-Blandford line at Broadstone. Other lines closed at around the same time were Wimborne-Salisbury via Verwood and Ringwood-Christchurch via Hurn. However, improvements made to the A31 in recent years ensure that a reopened line to Ringwood could not be continued over the abandoned formation to Wimborne and Ferndown.

Disused Bridge

Disused Bridge to be rehabilitated on Waverly Line

One of the most positive aspects of devolution has been the imagination and energy, largely absent in Whitehall, shown in the transport field in Scotland and Wales. A number of lines have been reopened in congested areas of the Scottish central belt and the South Wales valleys with dramatic results, demand generally exceeding forecasts by huge margins indicating the extent of pent up demand. An exciting project is the reopening of the Waverley route, closed in 1969, from Edinburgh to Tweedbank in the Scottish Borders, of some 35 miles, at cost of £250m approximately. In England by contrast groups supporting reopening of lines have faced huge obstacles. Some local authorities have supported rail investment but many have preferred road improvements, which they themselves undertake. A further obstacle in England has been the biased investment criteria. Road schemes are frequently justified by the aggregate value of savings in time although many are too small to be of much value. Public transport appraisals by contrast do not generally include savings in time and are further distorted by treasury insistence that loss of fuel duty from reduced car use is included, despite that being an objective of successive governments!


Diagram of restored Waverly Line

Diagram of restored Waverly Line

What does the future hold then for railway reopening in UK? With the huge public deficit the outlook for public expenditure generally is at best problematic and at worst poor. Labour did little to rehabilitate the railways, the long reign of the negative Alistair Darling as Secretary of State for Transport, combined with a longstanding anti-rail bias in the department of Transport saw many rail projects cancelled. In its dying days the Brown government appointed the visionary Andrew Adonis, first as rail minister then as Secretary of State. In a short time he changed thinking and approved important rail projects; had he been appointed ten years earlier those projects would now have been realised. Is the new minister, Philip Hammond, a Darling or an Adonis? His background and demeanour suggest a Darling but it is really too early to say. Reopening rail routes is environmentally friendly, obviates the need for new roads, reduces consumption of fossil fuels and pollution and facilitates more walking and cycling to and from stations that is healthy.

By Stephen Howard

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