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Railway renaissance must continue to be nurtured

This week’s cover story features work to reinstate the long-abandoned Borders Railway in Scotland. It highlights the result of decades of campaigning for this vital transport link.

But it also underlines the reality that railways are again a fundamental part of the UK’s critical transport network - as demonstrated graphically by Brighton & Hove City Council’s decision this week to include reinstatement of 11km of the Uckfield to Lewes line rail link in its city plan.

While there is still no question that car travel remains a dominant and, let’s face it, convenient way to get from A to B, the railways have never been higher on the agenda.

In fact, the growth in rail usage in Britain over the last few decades has outstripped even the most enthusiastic rail observers - a fact that will not have gone unnoticed by politicians now putting their cross-party weight behind High Speed Two plans.

“Beeching reminds us to ensure that every piece of infrastructure is appropriate to need and is run effectively and efficiently”

According to a report at the end of last year by the Association to Train Operating Companies (ATOC), since privatisation in 1994, passenger journeys on the national network have grown by 82% from 761M to over 1.4bn each year.

This current level of rail usage is, ATOC reckons, the highest since the 1920s and compares to just over 1bn a year in the 1960s.

The 1960s were, of course, a dark time for the nation’s rail network. Or perhaps, I suppose, a period of great modernisation and opportunity, depending on which way you see the so-called Beeching Axe which fell to close 55% of stations and 30% of rail lines.

This process of reform was kick-started in 1963 by British Rail chairman Dr Robert Beeching’s seminal “Reshaping of British Railways” report drafted in response to the losses racked up by British Railways after nationalisation in 1948 despite a decade of line closures and a programme of staff cuts.

Beeching’s challenge was to compete with the motor car, use of which was rocketing as the public embraced the convenience of personal travel and low fuel costs.

In short, the railways had become an increasingly second-rate alternative that was eating relentlessly into the public coffers.

By comparison, today we see a healthy and thriving railway. Yes, it still costs the public purse around £4bn of the £11.6bn annual cost of running the network. And yes, there is still an absolute need to bring this level of subsidy down. But crucially, the contribution to the wider economy from this investment is now recognised.

Next month sees the anniversary of the Beeching cuts. This moment in history reminds us of the need to ensure that every piece of infrastructure is appropriate to need and is run effectively and efficiently.

But it must also serve to remind us of the need to constantly highlight the value that investment in infrastructure brings with it. And so the question must be begged - what else should we now reinstate?

Readers' comments (1)

  • John Sreeves

    Beeching 50 years on: You asked for readers to suggest which railway lines should not have been closed.

    The most outstanding example of short-sightedness must be the Great Central Railway. This was built to high main line standards and purportedly a continental loading gauge. Passing through largely rural countryside and small to medium sized towns, it was never going to attract much traffic from the areas it passed through, but conversely upgrading would have been straightforward with minimal environmental impact. Now the HS2 route is going to follow the Great Central in part.

    Another one: Okehampton to Tavistock and Bere Alston. This would be a useful diversionary route when Brunel’s sea wall at Dawlish goes under water.

    Woodhead Route: This was NOT a Beeching closure. At the time of publication of Beeching Part 2 (16 February 1965) the tunnel was 12 years old and was selected for retention. Wrong kind of electrification, but it was the fastest trans-Pennine route.

    Closure of some loss making branch lines could arguably have been justified, but absence of diversionary through routes is being strongly felt now.

    John C Sreeves

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