UKIP has a strong and increasing representation at local level and this strength could be the key to enabling progress to be made on some worthwhile rail re-instatement projects. For example, the now funded East-West rail scheme, which aims to re-instate the Oxford-Cambridge Varsity line, began with pressure from a consortium of local authorities, which has now committed £45,000,000 toward the cost. Additional schemes (of which more later) would serve a better purpose, be spread more widely, reach completion more quickly and cost a fraction of the billions earmarked for that irrelevance called HS2. The justification is straightforward.
Demand for rail travel in the UK continues to grow. The number of passenger train journeys made in Britain has more than doubled in the 20 years since privatisation. Figures from the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) reveal that in 2013/14 they rose to 1.27 billion, a 3.3% rise on the previous year and an astonishing 115% increase on the 589 million journeys made in 1995, the last full year of British Rail.The rise is doubly remarkable since the railways were originally privatised in the expectation of inexorable and long-term decline after decades of BR rationalisation and closures. Instead the opposite has proved to be the case.
The number of journeys contained wholly within geographical regions in that year increased by 3.6% to 847.8 million. This was partly due to increases of 6.3% in London; 2.9% in Scotland; 4.2% in the East of England and 3.1% in the South West.The total number of journeys for Scotland was up 2.9% to 89.6 million and in Wales the figure rose by 1% to 19.2 million. The largest Welsh increase (7.8%) occurred on the Merthyr Tydfil branch, whose ridership figures have outperformed the national average every year since 2006. The only area that saw a reduction was the NW of England, with a fall of 1.1%.
ORR figures show that freight traffic is also increasing. In the year 2013/14 it rose 6% over the previous year. Three recent improvements, namely the chords at Nuneaton, Ipswich and Doncaster, have been built to create new paths and increase flexibility.
Rail re-openings in the Welsh Valleys and Scotland have been great successes, where forecasts for passenger numbers were quickly exceeded and often by considerable margins. Indeed, such is the success ofnew Welsh lines that some have already been selected for electrification. Only last week, on 5th February, the railhead reached Galashiels and the current terminus at Tweedbank, as the northern third of the closed Carlisle-Edinburgh trunk route is rebuilt to modern standards. It is due to begin public service on 6th September and the resolve exists in Scotland to extend it yet further,to Melrose and Hawick, perhaps again reaching Carlisle.
The time is ripe for more Beeching and BR-era closures to be reversed. Whilst retaining its anti-HS2 stance, UKIP could announce support for specific proposals with which people can more readily identify. In conjunction with industry partners (and local authorities through whose areas these routes run and which formulate local transport policy) there should be a positive-minded appraisal of former lines that have a realistic case for being reopened, not only to serve an immediate area but to provide new, low-pollution work and leisure opportunities, relieve busier lines, provide an alternative route in the event of engineering work or an accident, to segregate freight and be a driver of regeneration.
Investment is currently taking place in our railway system but there is a range of smaller local projects that do not need to make a direct call on the national finances. By creating local rail partnerships much can be achieved. Perhaps the prime example of this is the Swanage Railway (SR), which has spent decades reversing the closure of the branch from that seaside townto the mainline at Wareham. It could serve as a model for other intending ventures. On 5th February, Rail Minister Clare Perry inaugurated the bespoke signalling system which will allow SR trains to provide a public service from the coast on to the national network: Swanagerailway.com
SR is part of a group called the Purbeck Community Rail Partnership, composed of Dorset County Council, Purbeck District Council, Network Rail, Southwest Trains, The Borough of Poole and oil company Perenco. This, I would venture, is the real manifestation of the Big Society working at a local level.
Legislation, regulation, planning, and health and safety considerations cause some projects to have a frustrating, costly and drawn-out gestation period and very likely strangle others shortly after conception.
From The Transport and Works Act 1992, and particularly The Railway Act 1993, regulation has increased. This has created onerous processes required to comply with legislation and regulation, often unnecessarily or unreasonably, and frequently victim to local interpretation. The standards applicable to building HS2 also apply to local railway re-opening initiatives. Previously, a less burdensome Light Railway Order was available for the latter case.UKIP’s avowed intent to leave the EU, and the consequent bonfire of Brussels’ diktats, could relieve this country of the straightjacket of so much unnecessary bureaucracy and stifling restraint.
I would suggest the following as candidates for serious consideration for UKIP to support:
- In the private sector, Moorland and City Railway has taken ownership of a self-contained network centred on Leekbrook Junction in north Staffordshire. It aims to reconnect Leek to the national system, take quarry products off the highway, and, the prize, re-instate the line to Alton via which many visitors to the famed theme park could arrive, much to the relief of local roads and residents. This project has so much going for it, which should make it a priority for local support.
- Re-instate the missing Matlock-Buxton section of the mainline through the heart of the scenic Peak District, relieving the very busy A6, which, due to the physical geography of the area, cannot be easily bypassed.
- SELRAP Skipton-East Lancashire Railway Action Partnership. This project seeks to re-instate the 11 miles of line between Colne, Lancashire and Skipton, Yorkshire, linking cities and regions across the north.
- The campaign claims the support of 891 organisations, 754 individual politicians, 500 members and 67 affiliated groups but getting money from the DfT to fund this has thus far failed.
- Brighton Main Line 2. This sees the re-instatement of the line between Uckfield and Lewes, either as a standalone or as a component of grander strategic route.
- Re-instate the line southward from Stratford-upon-Avon (currently a terminus) to the Oxford-Worcester Cotswold line, to which it was once joined at Honeybourne Junction. Services could emanate from Paddington and open up direct access from the whole Thames Valley to this world-famous location.
- Penrith to Keswick Railway. This commercial venture is attempting to re-open the line into the heart of North Lakeland and bring relief to the road system. It seems to have an uphill battle with unsympathetic authorities. Despite protests, a company was allowed to build on, and thus breach, the trackbed.
There are many other possibilities. The Association of Train Operators (ATOC) has a wish list of lines they would like to see brought back to life, which they think they would be successful. It published a report entitled “Connecting Communities: Expanding Access to the Rail Network”, which describes selected line re-openings and notes the changes that have occurred in the last 40 years to justify them.They are most likely to know what could be viable and would prove a good source from which to assess projects and formulate policy.
Those who do not want something to happen will always find excuses why it cannot be done whereas those who do want it will have the eagerness to see reasons why it can be done. What is most needed is a political party that can be the enabler. That could be UKIP. Besides, given all the money saved by not being in the EU, so much should suddenly be possible.