It was Horace, teaching The Art of Poetry (line 139, if you want it), who borrowed that from Aesop.
The Department for Transport, in turn, borrows from Horatius and produces a shiny new apologia on how, one day, the railways of England and Wales will be again the wonder of the age. Note Scotland had the sense to run their remaining network as an integrated unit, and are already expanding.
At one level it’s all about undoing some of the damage privatisation and franchising did:
sweeping proposals aimed at creating joined up teams running track and train will make the railway more reliable for passengers and ensure that it works as one to deliver for its customers.
Hint: that’s what we had before the “poll tax on wheels“.
At another level it’s a response to the McNulty (2011) and Shaw (2015) reports. The paper mills of the DfT grind slow — and also exceeding small. Having failed to electrify, there’s always the magical incantation: “digital”. Sure enough, here comes the fairy dust:
The vision also pledges to introduce digital rail – new technologies that have the potential to reduce crowding and improve train punctuality for passengers – across more of the country.
The DfT is so advanced in thinking for the “digital” age, when one accesses the document, one is warned:
This file may not be suitable for users of assistive technology
Wait for it! — when we arrive at paragraph 2.23 we get “schemes”:
Rail services have the potential to unlock housing growth, as part of a wider transport network. New connections and stations can support locally-led development and help deliver more housing. There are also strategic opportunities to change local transport patterns, and provide communities and people with new opportunities.
Away we segue into a surfeit of subjunctives and hypotheticals:
- a new station could provide direct rail links
- also potentially generate additional housing opportunities in high-demand locations
- Construction is expected to start in late 2017 and to be completed by 2021. (The back-end of November is “late 2017”: is it happening yet?)
- a station has the potential to unlock 7,500 jobs and 1,500 homes
- the challenges of poor East-West connectivity need to be addressed (rather like the Hull-Leeds-Manchester-Liverpool corridor, which ought to be national priority #1 — but won’t be as long as it lies outside London and the South-East commuter belt).
More subjunctives (“may run”) and hypotheticals (“possibles”): The Times has identified the proposals to re-open lines Beeching axed:
From the top there:
- The Ashington, Blyth and Newcastle (ABT) line is there, running freight (providing essential links for the Alcan plant and the waste disposal at Butterwell), and Northumberland County Council has primed the pump with £5 million. Much of the expected cost is in peripherals: new stations, car-parks (there’s an irony!), and connections to other existing transport links (including Shanks’s pony and cycling).
2. Skipton to Colne is less than a dozen miles. It is abut as logical a link, a no-brainer, as could be imagined:
This one was not even proposed for closure by Beeching: it happened, none the less, in 1970. The Leeds and Bradford Railway saw the potential as early as 1848, and built it. Several studies (in 2003 and 2007 to my knowledge) have suggested considerable benefits. The route is protected by the planning authorities. Railtrack have agreed, but could make no progress without external finance. The whole scheme is complicated by the road lobby cooking up a route which parallels the railway: odd, that — a need for a road link where the basis for a rail one is staring all in the face.
Anyway, previous announcements — most recently a squeak before the June 2017 Election — amounted to more than a wink-and-a-nod.
3. The Kings Norton link is beyond me. There’s already a link into Birmingham, via Edgbaston. At first I wondered was this an error for the Kings Norton next to Leicester Airfield. Could it be because the housing developments in this patch are in desperate need of a fillip? Three Labour constituencies, all reasonably safe, cover the ground — so the “party advantage” motive doesn’t apply. On the other hand, the West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street, is a Tory, and has been raising smoke about transport expenditure in his fiefdom being a third, per-capita, of London.
4. Wisbech to March — oh, but this one could be fun!
The Wisbech to Outwell stretch never was more than a tramway:
Once a bus service arrived, the passenger line was closed — and that was as far back as 1927. The line functioned for agricultural produce until Beeching. Because the whole thing was so ramshackle, rustic and “quaint”, it has been a staple for model railway builders.
What is being talked of here is the “Bramley Line”. This wasn’t a Beeching cut so much as a shrivelling of the Fen links: this one survived for freight until the turn of the Millennium, because of the Metal Box and Nestlé factories (the latter did pet-foods, and seemed to me to specialise in odd smells). It’s all of — what? — eight miles. Re-opening would be more about overspill housing from Cambridge and Peterborough than much else.
Relevant or not, South-East Cambridgeshire is a relatively safe Tory seat. There was a sniff of rampant UKIPpery none too long ago, which provoked warm utterances from David Cameron for local development and investment.
5. The “Varsity Line” between Oxford and Cambridge should never have been closed. It wasn’t on Beeching’s list. Long stretches remain in active use. The main “missing link” is between Cambridge and Bedford, where — criminally — housing developments have been permitted over the rail route. Since 2010 there have been repeated announcements and promises of government funding — so this is yet another iteration.
Look carefully at that sketch map, and spot Verney Junction. Those who, like me, still dote on John Betjeman may recall this was where he found the end of his Metroland:
The houses of Metro-land never got as far as Verney Junction.
Grass triumphs, and I must say I’m rather glad.
Until 1936 it was possible for the rustics of Lord Verney’s estate at Clayton House to take the Metropolitan Railway all the way to Baker Street. Which also explains that pseudopod of the London Underground map which still extends into (nay, invents) Zones 8,9, and 10.
This is another case where housing is a significant factor. Reopening the route makes the Bletchley-Bedford stretch an obvious candidate to become a major development, up to city size. With houses at Verney Junction. And in an essentially Tory backyard, too.
6. Portishead to Bristol amounts to re-opening just over three miles of track. Since 2009 Network Rail has been muttering about doing the business, and MetroWest have it as a work-in-progress. All that is required is sorting out a level-crossing at Ashton Vale and building the new station at Harbour Road in Prtishead. Since the alternative is some very heavy improvements to the A369 into Bristol, this again represents a triumph of common sense over numbskullery.
7. Uckfield to Lewes, the Wealden Line, came close to agreement as far back as 2008. Since 2013 (as a spin-off from the ConDem coalition) there have been real moves to “do something”: government urged Network Rail into motion, the station site at Uckfield was bought back from (believe it!) the residuary British Rail Board.
Currently 42 miles (by road) from Lewes to Westminster takes an hour and a quarter by train. The truly-astounding thing here is that the natives of East Sussex have not risen in righteous revolt against Southern Rail. Even so, the rumblings of discontent along the whole Costa Geriatrica are impacting on traditional party loyalties — and that’s not good for Tories.
8. Exeter to Okehampton, last but not least.
Another one that has me puzzled. As I recall, this service — the Dartmoor Railway — was to be re-opened in 2010. Although passenger services ended in 1972, there were Sunday excursions after 1997.
What would make total sense is restoring the link from Okehampton to Bere Alston, which creates a second route to Plymouth and the South-West. That was seriously touted as the alternative when the line at Dawlish was washed away in February 2014.
So the sting in the tail is that the alternative route to the South-West, through Okehampton could threaten the South Devon line, were there to be more bad weather. Even now maintaining the Dawlish stretch needs half-a-million a year, and services are liable to suspension in bad weather at high tide.
I started with Horace’s “ridiculous mouse”. I conclude by marvelling that Chris Grayling, the disaster to befall one government department after another, has got away with this pip-squeak of a policy announcement.