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?