More of us are travelling by train than ever before. Last year in Britain, we made 1,718 billion journeys on Network Rail’s 20,000 miles of track; 1.2 billion were within the London commuter belt. Britain ranks just outside the world’s 20 most populous countries but has the fifth busiest rail network. In short, we like trains – or at least greatly prefer them to the increasingly sclerotic road system.
Now the railways, too, are becoming congested: ask anyone who travels on the livestock-transportation model of service operated by Southern, where matters are made worse by a 1970s-style breakdown in relations between management and unions. Many of the passengers live far from a railway station, so must sit in traffic jams to reach them – and hope to find a parking place when they do.
Help, though, may be at hand. Across the country, local councils, pressure groups and campaigners are lobbying for the reopening of many of Britain’s closed railways. Some are succeeding: here and there, trackbeds are being cleared of undergrowth, rails re-laid and stations rebuilt. One continues to wonder why, when so many railways were closed between the 1940s and the 1960s, it never occurred to the governments that shut them that the population, and the economy, might grow, or that this small and increasingly crowded island’s road system might, in places, become a semi-permanent car park leaving people begging for an alternative.
Railway closures are synonymous with Dr Richard Beeching – a scientist and technical director of ICI, who in 1961 was appointed the first chairman of the newly created British Railways Board – and his infamous report, The Reshaping of British Railways, published on 27 March 1963. However, even before his appointment, matters had been bad for years. Between 1948, when the railways were nationalised, and 1962 British Railways (BR) closed 3,318 miles of track. The system’s income failed to cover costs after 1955. By 1962 BR was losing the equivalent of £2bn a year in today’s money. The growing popularity of motoring in the 1950s rendered many of Britain’s branch lines economically untenable, as people routinely travelled from countryside to town by road, at a time of their choosing, door-to-door. Attempts to modernise the railways by phasing out steam trains had failed to create the savings expected.
Beeching identified 6,000 of 18,000 miles of track and 2,363 of Britain’s 7,000 stations as ripe for closure. Effectively, a third of the system would go. Local groups protested, and some lines were reprieved, but throughout 1964 and 1965 Britain swarmed with teams of men dismantling railways: tearing up tracks, demolishing bridges, uprooting level crossings. The carnage continued until the end of the decade. An old, run-down system became an old, run-down, amputated system. As more families bought cars, the railways became shabbier and less populated, even after Barbara Castle, as minister of transport, introduced subsidies to maintain lines considered to be of social importance.
British Rail (as British Railways became) took on the status of national joke. It was suffering from chronic unreliability caused in part by problems with industrial relations. That its 1970s advertising campaign was fronted by the ghastly Jimmy Savile now seems horribly appropriate. A 1982 report by David Serpell, a retired civil servant, included an option to cut most of what remained of the network, but the Thatcher government rejected it. That year railways in Britain reached their lowest ebb, with the fewest passenger miles travelled of any year in the second half of the 20th century.
It was not long before the lack of strategic forethought that had marked Beeching’s deliberations became apparent, as supposedly sedate and moribund towns around the country acquired business parks, industrial estates and big housing developments. The motorway network found itself overloaded almost as soon as new roads were finished, not least with convoys of polluting lorries hauling freight that once would have travelled by rail.
The response has been a 21st-century rebirth of parts of the original Victorian network. Thirteen lines have opened or reopened since 2000, the latest being the Borders Railway (part of the former Waverley Route) in 2015, running from Edinburgh down through Midlothian; there are now calls to reopen the rest of the line to Carlisle, a move that could cost up to £1.5bn but relieve much of the freight and some passenger traffic from the West Coast Main Line.
It is not just the rise in the popularity of rail, and the growth of new or greatly expanded communities, that have made once-unfeasible railways viable again. The business model is one Beeching did not even consider when computing the potential profitability of the lines he closed. He assumed railway stations would be manned from early morning until late at night, creating overheads that had to be met out of passenger revenues. One of the few reprieved lines – the East Suffolk, from Ipswich to Lowestoft – has long operated on a no-frills basis, providing a service to small towns and villages that would otherwise have been stranded. Another, the Settle-Carlisle, now carries more traffic than ever.
Reopening railways does not just expand economic possibilities for communities that barely existed when Beeching reported, it also obviates the need to build more relief roads, which in the past have simply encouraged traffic and the congestion they were meant to eliminate. For this reason there are campaigns to reinstate lines from Portishead to Bristol and from Stourbridge to Burton (the Worcester-Derby main line), the latter helping to divert both passengers and freight from the heavily overcrowded West Midlands road network. A recent survey showed that 61 per cent of people want more freight on the railways, and only 2 per cent want more on the roads. There are new Class 88 electro-diesel locomotives that can take freight on unelectrified lines. Many old goods yards were built over, but new ones could be developed. When the big road-building programme of the 1970s and 1980s was under way, it was often said that only a system of tax incentives could divert freight back to the railways; now the roads are so congested that shippers would need no incentive to consider returning to the rails, if better links existed.
Dr Beeching (right) examines the Brunel roof at Paddington, 1963. Photo: PA
The Campaign for Better Transport has published a list of 216 lines that could be reopened to passenger traffic. Some, economically, are at the far end of wishful thinking, but for many there is a clear case. The Department for Transport, belatedly aware of the economic and environmental value of a larger rail network, will allocate public money to such projects if a benefit:cost ratio suggests it would be advantageous, and if there is no other feasible way of improving transport in the area. It points out that all new lines opened since 1995 have exceeded predicted demand.
One such line is what was once known as the Varsity Line, linking Oxford and Cambridge, which was partially closed in 1968, despite not being on Beeching’s list. The section from Bletchley to Bedford remained open and trains are already running again from Oxford to Bicester; the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has announced funding of £110m to ensure the full Bicester to Bedford section is working by 2025, incorporating a mothballed freight line from Bicester to Bletchley. It is the last section of the line, between Bedford and Cambridge, that will pose problems. It has been built on at two places in Bedfordshire, and the Ryle Telescope of the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory occupies the track bed just south of Cambridge. However, government support and the determination of the county councils concerned means a route will be found. It is expected that by the early 2030s trains will be able to run from Oxford to Norwich and Ipswich, avoiding the need to travel through London.
The old Varsity Line – now the East-West Link – exemplifies the benefits of reopening railways. It will not merely take some pressure off the capital’s transport system, but enable people to commute into Cambridge – one of the most booming places in the country – without further jamming already congested roads, and without having to pay the hugely inflated property prices in the city.
For the same reason, there is a campaign to reopen lines to Wisbech in the north of Cambridgeshire. With around 30,000 inhabitants, the Fenland town has seen better days, but a proposed link to the main line via March and Ely could deliver commuters into Cambridge in 35 minutes, allowing them to benefit from far lower property prices at the same time as regenerating local business. There is also a campaign to reopen the branch line south-east from Cambridge to Haverhill, one of the largest towns in England not currently served by rail. When the line closed in 1967, 4,000 people lived there; now 27,000 do, with housing for another 10,000 planned over the next decade.
There are other strategic reasons for reopening railways. The Dawlish landslip in 2014, which cut off Cornwall from the rest of the network, made the case for rebuilding the line from Exeter to Okehampton; but that would also make it feasible to build more housing in towns such as Tavistock. There is an even more vociferous campaign to reinstate the railway from Lewes to Uckfield in Sussex, to create a new main line from Brighton to London, linking to a new Croydon Gateway station and through to Stratford. It would cost billions, but the argument is that nothing else would so satisfactorily alleviate the overcrowding from Sussex and Surrey into London. Beeching closed many lines – notably the old Great Central, which started at Marylebone and ran up the spine of England to Leicester, Nottingham and Sheffield and finally to Manchester – because he felt they duplicated others. With many existing lines now running at full capacity, duplication in some areas has become essential – a contention that provides much of the case for HS2.
Campaigns for reopenings are to be found all over the country. In less affluent areas, such as at Ashington in Northumberland, they argue that the greater mobility brought by a railway would stimulate growth. In wealthier areas the impetus is to alleviate traffic problems. In Essex, the railway from Braintree to Bishop’s Stortford that closed to passengers in 1952 – long before Beeching – but remained open to freight until 1972 could now serve the greatly expanding town of Great Dunmow and run on the periphery of Stansted Airport, linking it directly to east Essex. In the town of Maldon, which used to have two branch lines, and which now has a population of 15,000 and no railway at all, hundreds of commuters have to drive on winding country roads to the main line. It is a similar story all over southern England and in parts of the Midlands.
The new rail boom has coincided with privatisation, but is not entirely a result of it. Some private developers, especially housebuilders, have shown an interest but, as with the East-West Link, state funds will be needed if a co-ordinated reopening programme is to be contemplated. The environmental and economic benefits of such a policy seem remarkably clear. Whether this nationwide investment would be a better use of the funds earmarked for the increasingly detested HS2 project – which at current estimates will cost £70bn – is something politicians should start actively to debate.
The effects would be felt in every corner of the land, and many reopenings would link towns across the country and lessen their reliance on what is effectively the national rail hub in London. In a country where there is too much regional imbalance, rail investment in the provinces would help rectify the situation. In the interests of all of Britain, it is a debate that is long overdue.
This article appears in the 21 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia