Transport secretary Grant Shapps has called for some ‘beechinged’ lines to be reopened – but which ones?
Reopening a closed railway line is expensive and requires a lot of planning and financial justification. Local enthusiasts are often keen to see trains running again, but that enthusiasm needs to be backed up by sound logic and a convincing argument. David Shirres considers what is needed and explains how one scheme has (nearly) succeeded.
Throughout their history, railways have brought economic prosperity by connecting communities. In the past twenty years, seven re-opened lines have shown this is still true. Hence, it is not surprising that the re-opening of these lines has spurred calls for other disused railways to be re-opened. Many, but certainly not all, of these were closed by Dr Richard Beeching.
In January, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps launched the government’s £500 million fund to reverse Beeching closures by re-opening closed lines, such as the one to Fleetwood where he made his announcement. This followed an election commitment to “restore many of the Beeching lines” and was welcomed by many rail campaigners including the Campaign for Better Transport (CBT), whose report “the case for expanding the rail network” lists over 250 possible re-openings, of which 33 are priority schemes.
Considering the current increase in passenger numbers, it might be difficult to understand why so many potentially useful railway lines were closed. Yet, in the 1960s, British Railways was haemorrhaging money, with rail traffic falling due to the growth in road haulage and increasing car ownership as the motorway network was being built. At the time, roads were seen to be the future.
When Dr Beeching was appointed as the first chairman of the British Railways Board (BRB) in 1961, he had to ensure that railways had a long-term future. His response was the notorious report “The Reshaping of British Railways”.
This showed that one third of the route mileage (6,000 miles) carried only one per cent of the traffic and that the operating cost of these lines was four times their income. The continued operation of these lines was not sustainable. Hence, large-scale closures were required. However, the BRB’s accounting did not provide the information required to make informed decisions about individual lines. Hence, some lines were closed that should have stayed open.
The report also noted that “railways are distinguished by their own specialised route system which gives rise to high fixed costs but also offers great benefits for high-capacity dense flows of traffic.” His report therefore proposed the introduction of container trains and development of inter-city passenger trains. In this way, Beeching laid the foundations for the modern railway and ensured its future.
Yet, this is not how he is remembered. Instead, to quote his own words: “I suppose I’ll always be looked upon as the axe man, but it was surgery, not mad chopping.”
Reopening closed railways is particularly expensive. Before construction can commence, there are legal and land acquisition costs, consents to be obtained, environmental mitigation measures to be finalised, utilities to be diverted and possible mining remediation to be undertaken.
Modern standards also add to costs by, for example, requiring more resilient earthworks as well as bridges and new roads instead of level crossings.
Track-beds that have been developed since the original railway was closed, such as for new roads and buildings, may require expensive civil engineering work or a new route around the blockage. In 2009, the Association of Train Operating Companies called on the government to take a more strategic approach to safeguarding likely routes. This call does not seem to have been heeded as, for example, the line to Fleetwood, that Grant Shapps wishes to see re-opened, had its junction with the main line at Poulton-le-Flyde removed in 2017 as part of the Preston to Blackpool electrification work.
Nevertheless, there was some local action to preserve routes. After the line between Airdrie and Bathgate closed in 1982, the local councils protected the route with a cyclepath. This decision enabled the line to be re-opened in 2010.
A question of priority
A viable reopening proposal requires capacity on the existing network to accommodate its additional services. This was not an issue in Beeching’s time, when main lines were not so busy. For example, there were 13 daytime trains a day from London to Scotland in 1970, compared with 49 in 2019. Accommodating traffic from new lines is likely to be a problem at city-centre stations and the lines leading to them. Resolving such conflicts could be impossible or prohibitively expensive, especially if many closed lines were to be re-opened.
The proposal to reintroduce a passenger service on the freight only Ashington – Blythe line is an example of such a conflict. There is a strong case for this new service, which is now at the ‘Develop’ stage of the Department for Transport (DfT)’s Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline (RNEP). However, this would require trains from Ashington to run on four miles of the East Coast main line into Newcastle. This short run would thus constrain the introduction of additional, longer-distance services north of Newcastle.
This potential conflict of traffic from new and existing lines raises the issue of prioritisation of funding for new lines and the existing network. Notwithstanding the Coronavirus emergency, the rail network is carrying more passengers than it did in 1918, when the network was twice its current size. The investment priority is therefore for capacity improvements on core routes.
This point is illustrated by the proposal to re-open the eleven-mile line between Skipton and Colne to provide a through service from East Lancashire to Leeds via Skipton. Yet the parallel existing route via Halifax and Bradford already provides a service from the large East Lancashire towns of Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley to Yorkshire. It is suggested that this new route would provide a much-improved freight link between Liverpool and Yorkshire. However, this would require hugely expensive gauge clearance and structural work to accommodate freight trains on a route over a hundred miles long.
The Skipton to Colne re-opening proposal is currently at the ‘Determine’ stage in the RNEP and so requires a business case which will no doubt consider the above issues. In 2014, this re-opening was one of 26 options that were evaluated against 20 objectives in the East Lancashire Rail Connectivity Study (available on-line). This concluded that the Skipton to Colne route offered only a few slight benefits for the region compared with the many significant benefits of electrifying and upgrading the existing route from East Lancashire to Leeds.
After Borders, what next?
After the re-opening of the Borders Railway in September 2015, an article in Rail Engineer reviewed 40 proposals from established rail campaigns to re-open a closed line. It also reviewed re-openings since 2000.
Most of these schemes had been the subject of an appraisal report which determined their Benefit Cost Ratio (BCR). DfT guidance states that schemes with a high BCR (over 2) are likely to be supported, some with a medium BCR (1.5 to 2) might be acceptable and few with a low BCR (1 to 1.5) would be supported. However, BCR is a crude indicator and some of these studies did not fully take account of wider economic benefits.
Furthermore, BCR does not necessarily reflect government policy, which supports the reopening of old lines if they connect communities to centres of employment and commerce or create new corridors for economic growth to rebalance the economy.
The Rail Engineer article considered that a rough indication of the viability of a reopening scheme is a diagram which represents the locations to be connected as circles, proportional to population size, linked with a line proportional to the length of line to be opened. Such diagrams show that the most viable re-openings are those that require a short line to be re-opened to bring large communities within commuting distance of a large city.
Of the 40 proposals considered by this article in 2016, two had construction authorised, five were being developed, 15 had a BCR greater than one but were not being progressed and 18 had a BCR that had not been assessed or was less than one. One of those for which construction had been authorised was the Bicester to Bletchley section of East West Rail. However, work was subsequently stopped on the other, the Croxley link, due to rising costs.
The five for which there was development work at the time were Portishead, Wisbech, Skelmersdale, Ashington & Blythe and Levenmouth.
Levenmouth – a case study
Levenmouth is the largest community in Scotland without a railway and is at the end of a six-mile-long mothballed freight line. This relatively inexpensive reopening would make it possible for the community to commute to Edinburgh by public transport. An active campaign group had been promoting this re-opening.
The proposal to reopen the line was the subject of two studies, produced in 2008 and 2016, funded by Fife Council. One of these reports significantly over-estimated the re-opening cost and neither took account of the additional journeys that would be generated by a rail link.
Thus, despite strong local support, the Scottish Government had yet to be convinced. The group then had the idea of clearly presenting the case for Levenmouth in a 32-page A5 booklet. The booklet was produced with the support of retired railway engineers and operators, some of whom had worked on previous railway re-openings.
To be a credible document, it was felt that it must present a balanced view that did not over-exaggerate benefits and would highlight any significant issues, such as the difficulties of recasting the timetable for this re-opened branch line.
In a debate on the re-opening in the Scottish Parliament in September 2017, the Scottish Transport Minister noted that this booklet “is a really helpful contribution and, if members have not seen it, they should look at it. It illustrates how improved connectivity can make a real difference to the lives and opportunities of people in Levenmouth.”
The Minister then announced that Transport Scotland would manage a further study that would consider the wider socioeconomic and regeneration impacts. This study was finalised in May 2019. In August it was announced that detailed designs are to be drawn up for the Levenmouth scheme, with a view to it reopening with the next five years.
Getting a railway re-opened
Re-opening a railway will cost tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions and so requires government funding. Therefore, the first stage is to persuade the appropriate government department that the re-opening is likely to be a viable scheme. In England and Wales this requires the Department for Transport to agree to include it in the first stage of its Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline process.
Government then has to agree the funding of consultants to produce a business case. This would have to show that the scheme was good value for money, consider any adverse impact on the existing network, confirm it met government objectives for rail re-openings and evaluate the scheme against other options, such as light rail and improved bus services. A satisfactory business case is essential if government is to spend significant sums on design and, subject to agreed construction costs.
Thus, the task for rail campaigners is to get active government support to produce the business case and develop the scheme. Of the many ways of doing this, the Levenmouth booklet was particularly successful.
It was also very cheap, as it used the expertise of both campaigners and retired railway professionals who were glad to give their time to what was seen as a worthwhile cause. The only cost was printing the booklet at £300 for 2,000 copies. It is available online – just search for ‘Levenmouth booklet’.
Another useful resource for rail campaigners is the booklet jointly published by the DfT, Railfuture and the Campaign for Better Transport (CBT): “Expanding the Railways – how to develop and deliver a proposal”, which is available on the CBT website.
If a credible document is to be produced to gain government support, it requires strong realistic arguments and an honest assessment of problems. It also needs to be accepted that the requirement is to improve local connectivity, for which a railway re-opening is just one solution.
The overall study of re-opening schemes in the 2016 Rail Engineer article suggested that, whilst there are certainly some worthwhile re-opening proposals, a large-scale reversal of the Beeching closures is not a realistic proposition, especially as the current core network does not have the capacity to accept trains from many new lines.
For all these reasons, the question of ‘should a railway have been closed in the Beeching era’ is not the same as ‘should a railway be re-opened today.’