HS2 will needlessly destroy great swathes of our landscape because up, down and across the country can be found substantial traces of redundant track bed and fine but languishing structures that, in several instances, could be brought back into use at a fraction of the cost of, and more usefully than, HS2. These are a small sample of the re-opening schemes which merit consideration and would serve a much wider purpose and have a greater geographical spread over the country: Colne-Skipton; the South Staffordshire line; Avon Rail Link; Penrith-Keswick; Stoke-Leek-Alton Towers; Matlock-Buxton; Exeter to Plymouth via Okehampton to name but a few. However, the government remains obsessed with HS2, regardless of its burgeoning cost, distant delivery and dubious utility. I say forget HS2. Instead, earmark just half its budget and quickly identify what needs to be done in expanding strategic routes, getting rails re-laid to deprived areas and deliver the rail system and service we need and deserve, wherever possible employing existing but underused or redundant rail infrastructure. Better yet, use the money saved by not being in the EU.
Growth in the use of our railways, particularly by passengers, rises year on year and this demand has shown steady progress, having doubled in the two decades since full privatisation. Much investment has taken place in the nation’s rail infrastructure, but the asset manager seems now to have reached a crossroads.
Such was the concern about Network Rail that major schemes were paused while a thorough review of its operations was undertaken by Sir Peter Hendy. Delays and cost overruns to railway projects had become alarming. A strategically key development, East West Rail, involves the re-instatement, refurbishment and eventual electrification of the cross-country Oxford to Cambridge Varsity route, which, like so many others, fell victim to the notorious Beeching-era cuts. Once rebuilt, a wide range of new passenger journey opportunities will open up and freight services can use it as part of what has been dubbed the electric spine. Yet this major piece of infrastructure, which has official approval and on which preparatory work has begun, is now threatened by years of delay. Similarly, the Midland Mainline electrification will not be delivered as intended, reaching Sheffield by 2023, three years later than originally planned. Add to this the soaring costs of electrifying the Great Western Main Line and doubts arise about the competency and ability of this country’s railway infrastructure owner and the Department for Transport (DfT) to plan, organise, fund and deliver these major undertakings on time and within budget.
Rail re-openings in the Welsh Valleys and Scotland have been great successes, where often ambitious forecasts for passenger numbers were quickly exceeded, regularly by sizable margins. A recent case in point is the Borders Railway which, on 6th September 2015, re-opened the northern third of the closed Carlisle-Edinburgh trunk route. It was rebuilt to modern standards while also being able to re-use much of the original route and many of the Victorian structures, including the 166-year-old Newbattle Viaduct which needed surprisingly little remedial work. It was hoped 600,000 would travel on it in its first year. However, in its first month 125,971 people used it. If success is sustained, the resolve exists in Scotland to extend it further, to Melrose and Hawick, perhaps again reaching Carlisle, thus undoing one of the worst and most regretted closures. Some newly re-opened Welsh lines are already being considered for electrification.
The DfT’s botched re-letting of the West Coast franchise in 2012 led Virgin Trains to threaten legal action. In preparation to defend this, fundamental flaws were revealed in the way it had organised the bid process and it led to a £40,000,000 loss to the taxpayer in compensation and other costs. Yet did anyone get the sack? Not to my knowledge.
Those who don’t want something to happen will always find excuses. Those who believe in something always find reasons why it is possible and usually go on to achieve it. What is desperately needed are those with vision, commitment and a genuine pride in what they do and the contribution they make. Could our country ever produce the likes of Brunel and the Stephensons again?