GovernmentThe ConservativesTransport

Loose change for trains

There was a lot of excitement on Friday over the news that the Conservatives say they’re going to reverse Dr Beeching’s railway closures:

Boris Johnson will reinstate local railway lines axed under the Beeching cuts in the 1960s as part of a package of measures to rejuvenate provincial towns.

Some said it was a great idea, some said it was a bad idea. But I’m not how closely all these people really read the details of the proposal:

The Conservatives will make a manifesto pledge to spend £500 million opening branch lines that closed more than 50 years ago

500 million to reverse Beeching? This is Diane Abbot numbers. For that you’ll get a few miles. It’s true that in many cases you don’t need to lay a track or even fix it because it’s still there and in good shape, but 500 million isn’t going to get you much.

I do think that there is a lot of under-used potential in Britain’s train lines, though. In one city where I used to live there was a train line that goes through my old suburb right into the city centre. The line is used by national rail services, so the track is in perfectly good condition. There used to be a station in my suburb, but it was closed down long ago. I always thought that it would make sense to re-open that station seeing as there’s now a lot of traffic going into and out of the city centre at peak hour. (Also, the traffic is generally made worse by all the train lines that cut through the city, and and that’s kind of galling when you see how few trains use them.)

Of course, I expect that it made sense to close the station, and others like it,  at the time due to lack of use — don’t forget that the reason Beeching closed so many stations and lines is because they weren’t being used much — but given that traffic has exploded and road construction hasn’t keep up you’d think that now it would make economic sense as there would be much more demand. Especially seeing as my old city recently built totally new tram lines at gigantic expense and trouble.

But the Conservatives are right to start off re-opening stations a few at a time, as it seems is the plan. Just because it seems to make sense, from an outside view, to reopen some stations doesn’t mean that it’s really going to work. Train lines are very expensive to run. If you can’t fit all the new passengers on the existing services then you may need to buy more engines and carriages, and these cost millions each. There may be infrastructure upgrades required, which may also be expensive (we’re always hearing about how bad a shape the British signalling systems are in). Plus there’s extra staffing required on the trains, in the stations (unless you’re doing unmanned stations, which I expect many will be), and on the technical side. So there’s no guarantee that reopening a station will make any economic sense. (And you can expect whatever the estimated cost is, it will double and then triple within a few years, and take years longer than it should to be ready). So trying a few out first is the best thing to do.

Update: Another issue is whether the city centre stations that will be the destination of a lot of these services can cope with the extra trains, or will they require highly expensive enlargements?

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8 thoughts on “Loose change for trains

  1. The best way they could spend that money would be to just give it to all the heritage railways to let them get on with extending the lines they are already running. Maybe on the proviso that anyone who takes the cash has to run a basic daily commuter service from end to end. That would certainly be the best bang for their bucks – getting the most amount of track relaid. If you attempt to rebuild closed lines to mainline standard then £500m would get you about 50-60 miles of new line, based on the cost that the Scottish Parliament paid to get the Waverley Line Extension built.

  2. Railtrack reopened a lot of lines that had been reduced to freight traffic, building new stations, back in the ’90s. But boo, hiss, privatization!

  3. Ah that monster Beeching!

    Why were these lines losing money so spectacularly? After all, we’re talking 50s/early 60s. This was a time when a car was still basically a middle class privilege, when there were no out of town shopping centres, essentially no motorways or decent dual carriageway and when (I believe) something like 80% of journeys to work were public transport anyway.

    Could it have been that the lines closed should never have been built in the first place?

  4. Mark; Railway Mania.

    One for Jim; what changes were occurring in and around the agricultural sector post-war, up to the time of the Beeching review?

  5. “what changes were occurring in and around the agricultural sector post-war, up to the time of the Beeching review?”

    Quite big rationalisation of the farming sector going on post war, right up to and beyond entering the EEC in 1972. Farm sizes growing rapidly, mechanisation replacing horses, labour being replaced by machinery. I suspect that a good deal of agricultural trade was transferring from the railways to the roads at this time – for example milk that would once have been sent to the local station in churns from lots of small farms might be collected from several larger farms by a bulk tank lorry instead. Livestock would be being sent by lorry to slaughter, as the trip would be more direct than having to be routed via stations. Grain would start to be moved by bulk tank lorries instead of in sacks via rail. As farms mechanised farmers became used to using vehicles to shift their produce rather than horse and cart to the nearest station, and vehicles allowed them to travel further than the old horse drawn transport would.

  6. Thanks Jim.

    What really fucks me off whenever Beeching comes up these days (and for quite a while, actually) is the unspoken and unexamined assumption that it was all about passengers, commuters.

    It wasn’t. It was bloody freight. And round my neck of the woods, it was agricultural freight (and coal, as a domestic fuel). These lines didn’t have decent passenger traffic to begin with. And the changes to the agricultural sector had already happened when Beeching was done. Whack on the shift to gas, and they’re gone. Dead in the water.

    Again, round my way, they might (might, possibly, may be) have been able to physically re-open some portions of the lines up to about 2000-ish. Just re-lay the steel, power (or just use diesel) and signalling, as the way was still there (assuming that the bridges and tunnels were ok-ish) untouched. Unfortunately, since then, supermarkets, housing estates and leisure areas have been built across those ways; ain’t happening now.

    Look at the numbers for transport; trains are used for about 11% of daily commutes, which is distributed almost entirely into the larger cities, aka from the south east into London. Look at the network map pre-Beeching; it won’t fix it, as how do you get into the Gatwick Diamond from the rest of the area. The network didn’t support that then, and it won’t now. Again, it didn’t work for getting into London and back on a daily basis either, as that wasn’t what it was intended to provide.

    If you want to look at central government fuck-ups, look at the growth in freight traffic post-privatisation. It’s really quite impressive. But what those operators wanted was better access to existing lines (from about 1998 onwards) which never happened, and they didn’t get any new lines either. As passenger traffic was the easier sell for politicians.

    What we have now, is a last leg problem. For freight. Not people. The “High Street” solved that in a particular way. At the moment, there’s been a yuge amount of growth in last leg traffic on roads that simply can’t handle it, and damage done over the winter of 2011(?), about ten years ago now (probably due another one of them, about now I reckon) hasn’t been fully recovered.

    I wouldn’t actually be that fussed, if Amazon hadn’t bought a supermarket chain. These terribly disruptive cyber-digital firms are actually evolving back to the previous models; because they bloody worked.

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