Rural county is still better off than some

London buses on Salisbury Plain on a wet August Bank Holiday.
London buses on Salisbury Plain on a wet August Bank Holiday.

Northumberland is one of the least densely populated parts of England, and this is reflected in the amount of public transport available.

The few railway stations have surprisingly good levels of service to and from the major centres, and there is pressure to restore a better level of local service linking the major places in the county.

There is still a strategic network of bus services, some of which are maintained by public subsidy, but Northumberland is actually better off than some other rural areas where bus services have almost completely disappeared.

Public services of all descriptions are commensurate with the needs of the population. When we visit the major centres such as Newcastle, Leeds or London, we find it easy to travel around once we have studied the transport provision.

Everybody visits the capital sometimes, and the choice of transport modes is overwhelming. The key to using them is information, which is particularly good in London. The Underground is shortly to start running services throughout the night on certain sections at the weekends, but there are dozens of bus routes which run all night; the most frequent one runs every three minutes day and night.

One of the strangest London bus routes is not even in London, it is on Salisbury Plain, and it only runs on August bank holiday.

It runs from Warminster station to Imber and some other places in the area which are normally closed to the public.

In the war, more than 70 years ago, the area was commandeered by the military as a training ground.

People were required to vacate their homes on the promise that they would be able to return when hostilities ceased, but this promise was not fulfilled, and the area is still depopulated.

St Giles Church, the parish church of the village of Imber, remained consecrated for some years awaiting the return of its parishioners, and is still open for the few weeks in August when the public are allowed access to the area, which is used for the rest of the year for military training.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer made a pre-election announcement about creating a Powerhouse of the North (by which he meant Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds), and a key part of this was a new faster rail link which he called HS3.

The existing railway line is already scheduled for electrification, and the cost of a new trans-Pennine route from Manchester to Leeds would be enormous. There is already such a route from Manchester to Sheffield, which was electrified and with new tunnels under the Pennines, but this was closed and the tunnels used for electric cables.

When it was announced that this railway was to close, observers at the time could hardly believe what they were hearing.

The desires of politicians for political gain are often frustrated by practicalities, and it has already been found that it will not be possible to achieve all that has been promised, so the trans-Pennine route electrification and the Midland main line electrification are being ‘paused’. This will play havoc with the need to replace some of the diesel trains by the end of the decade, which will create a political storm of some magnitude. Watch this space.

While major schemes are foundering, small practical improvements are quietly taking place in the Manchester and Liverpool area as two-car diesel trains are being replaced by four-car electrics transferred from the London area.

There are not many opportunities currently for local services in the north-east to be electrified, but those in and out of Newcastle on the East Coast Main Line, such as to Morpeth, would benefit from the allocation of an electric set.

At least it would make it seem as though something is happening in this forgotten corner of the north.