Posted 25th May 2020 | 8 Comments

Monday essay: Off the rails?

In spite of the present problems, the Department for Transport is moving ahead with plans to reopen some railways – or at least, to fund more detailed proposals. Sim Harris has been looking at some newly-published DfT ‘Guidance’, and finds that it lacks some details.

 THE Department for Transport rather oddly chose the Bank Holiday weekend to update its ‘guidance’ on plans to reopen railways with its ‘Restoring your railway fund’.

There is a new list of ten schemes which have been chosen to receive some (limited) financial help to develop a business case.

Some are simple station reopenings, as at Meir, which the guidance describes coyly as being ‘between Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire’. For those who wonder how anywhere can be described as being between a city and part of a county, Meir, which was closed in 1966, is actually south east of Stoke on the Derby line, between the present stations at Longton and Blythe Bridge.

Other proposals are also relatively simple, such as restoring a passenger service on the alternative route between Sheffield and Chesterfield via Barrow Hill, and the reopening of Wellington and Cullompton stations.

We move into trickier territory where lines have to be rebuilt, such as the ‘reinstatement of branch lines on the Isle of Wight’, of which more in a moment.

Another intriguing proposition is the ‘reinstatement of the Abbey line between St Albans Abbey and Watford Junction’. This would be very easy indeed on the face of it, because the railway not only exists but carries an electrified passenger service.

Therefore the DfT unblushingly leaves us to guess what remains to be reinstated. A possible answer is a crossing place at Bricket Wood (the line is single throughout, which naturally limits its capacity). But one problem in St Albans is that the Abbey Line terminus is at the bottom of a hill, and some distance from St Albans City station on the Midland Main Line.

The Abbey Line from Watford was St Albans’ first railway, and when the Midland was building its new main line to London a spur was constructed from the Abbey Line at How Wood to carry materials to the Midland site.

This spur never carried anything but engineering trains, but if it was rebuilt Abbey Line trains would be able to run directly into St Albans City for the first time ever – and there is even a former bay platform on the up side which could also be revived for the purpose (although some expensive additional crossovers would also be needed).

That would be more like a real reinstatement (in fact, a genuine enhancement), but the smart money is probably better invested in a crossing place at Bricket Wood, which would at least allow a significant increase in the timetable.

Meanwhile, there is a little nervousness on the Isle of Wight, where the IoW Steam Railway is cautious about the prospect of ‘reinstatement of branch lines’, particularly as its heritage trains run on part of the former route between Smallbrook Junction (on the line from Ryde) and Newport – which is a candidate.

Local MP Bob Seely is quoted by the ‘On the Wight’ news website as saying: ‘Working with the council and others, I will do all I can to see these aspirations become a reality.

‘However, we must also be realistic about the logistical challenges we face in seeing these routes restored.

‘My discussions with the steam railway last week confirmed that they will support feasibility studies, which will need to look at how – and if – the existing route between Smallbrook and Wootton could be utilised for public passenger services, alongside its existing use.

‘Understandably, the steam railway’s first priority is to ensure the continued operation of their award-winning and popular heritage railway.’

This is a good point. Railnews has previously discussed the problems which could arise if National Rail trains were to run once again between Taunton and Minehead – in particular, the potential loss of Light Railway status for the West Somerset Railway and the various derogations which go with it.

There may already be a similar elephant in the room on the Isle of Wight, or perhaps it is already trumpeting mournfully in the chines. In any case, it is going to prove to be a hard animal to dislodge.

Any reopening of a railway for National Rail services which has been preserved for heritage operations is going to be an uphill task – probably far harder than it was for Dr Beeching to close the line in the first place.

Although there have been some occasional through timetabled workings from the main network for a few days a year on lines like the Swanage Railway, nobody has ever managed to reintroduce a full daily National Rail service on heritage infrastructure.

Does the DfT’s ‘Guidance’ take that into account?

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Reader Comments:

Views expressed in submitted comments are that of the author, and not necessarily shared by Railnews.

  • Iain Kitt, Newcastle upon Tyne

    Where is the strategic plan that assesses the need for new railways or reopenings on the basis of what is going to represent the best use of any new investment? Instead, its another case of whose favourite pet scheme will get the attention of a minister in the DfT? How else do you explain the inclusion of the ludicrous IoW scheme when there are plenty of more pressing cases that will deliver better value for money and more benefits to local communities. I confidently predict that most of these will never happen and the whole scheme will get quietly dropped.

  • david c smith, Bletchley

    The Beeching closures policy , as far as I'm aware, pre- dated the idea of benefit / cost analysis so that "hidden"costs and benefits were not taken into account. This resulted in a narrow, incomplete basis for closure decisions.
    If, rather than the State / DfT making decisions, which they seem demonstrably poor at, instead the State were simply to take on a role of injecting incentives, as subsidies / charges, into the transport / rail marketplace, in order to represent "hidden" benefits and costs, and give entrepreneurs a free hand within such framework, then hopefully, we might get the optimum results.

  • king arthur, buckley

    There needs to be a national body set up specifically tasked with reinstating railway lines. At present it is really down to local authorities and to a lesser extent local campaign groups to do all the leg work, but neither have the resources or the expertise to make any significant progress. The Campaign for Better Transport published an excellent study earlier this year that suggested a number of schemes that are potentially viable.

  • Jez Milton, Manchester

    The railway is on her knees. She doesn't deserve this, but thanks to aviation spreading misery worldwide at 400mph, here we are.

    As a rail community we have to defend our industry. An end to RMT Ludditeism. An end to Network Rail incompetence.

    We face an existential crisis.

  • Tony Pearce, Reading

    Going back to talking about 'Beeching' by the DofT doesn't seem to me what is required at this time. We need out-of-the-box thinking. For example - Could Trains be made so that every passenger could have a Cycle with them for start and end of the Journey ? Can we have 'Pod' travel especially in big Cities. I don't know if anyone remembers the continuous 'Pods' which seated 2 people and you got in and out while they were still moving. One example was at Beaulieu Motor Museum and at York Jorvic Centre. The London Eye is an example of 'Pods' as well. Are we able to divide the Coaches back up into Compartments again ? (Now that really is going back !) Is the Air Circulation in Coaches going to have to be redesigned to prevent infections being passed around ? Railways are going to have to prove to people that they are really safe from infections if they are to be used en masse again.

  • James Miller, Hackney

    I was at Corfe Castle, when SWR parked their 158 on the Swanage Railway and got talking to one of SWR's Senior Managers. They said, they were impressed with the Swanage Railway's operation and engineering. As this gets better on heritage railways, surely this will encourage more through services by both branches of the UK Rail Industry.
    [Encouragement is not much to do with it -- the law is the hurdle. The Swanage Railway experiment did not involve common running but two separate services meeting at Corfe Castle. Over short distances, such as from Wareham to Corfe Castle, a speed restriction of 25mph(40km/h) would not matter very much. It does matter on longer runs, such as Taunton to Minehead or Kidderminster to Bridgnorth (passengers on National Rail services are not travelling for fun). Speed restrictions cannot be selective, because they apply to the railway as a whole. If, for example, the West Somerset lost the derogations which come with a Light Railway Order, its operation would be changed dramatically, and probably not for the better. If this was easy, someone would have solved it long ago.--Ed.]

  • strawbrick, Watford

    "There is a new list of ten schemes which have been chosen to receive some (limited) financial help to develop a business case." Presumeably for these "schemes" to have made it to the list, someone will invited proposals against some sort of parameters , to which a number oif someones will have responded and then they wil hjave presented their individual proposals to someone, who would then have assessed them against some criteria, and those that "passed" have been put on a list of ten by someone.
    Where can I find out who all these "someones" were and how the list of ten has been prepared? Is there a list of those who did not make the list?

  • Chris Jones-Bridger, Buckley Flintshire

    Call me a cynic but as the Transport Secretary was the unfortunate cabinet minister facing the media while a major political storm was brewing doesn't the release reek of desperation to try to divert attention to talk about anything rather other than the pressing political crisis of the moment. Taking the release at face value it says little that isn't already known & any funding available will barely cover the consultants fees for the inevitable reports that will be produced.

    [Strictly, this was 'guidance' rather than a press release (guidance rarely gets any publicity), but the Saturday of the Bank Holiday weekend was still a curious time to update it.--Ed.]