Old rail lines should be put back on track

A train at Chathill.
A train at Chathill.

Northumberland, like many parts of the country, suffered from the withdrawal of railway services about 50 years ago, after a comparatively short period of opportunity for people to object.

The grounds of objection open to them were effectively only hardship, and that was countered by ensuring the provision of alternative bus services at every station.

These did not last long. Railway passengers do not often consider bus services to be an adequate alternative to trains, especially as journeys take quite a lot longer and they cannot carry heavy luggage or bicycles, but evidently these disadvantages were not considered hardship. Very few passengers used them and most were soon withdrawn.

Re-opening a railway, or even just a station, is a very much longer process than closing one.

The first requirement is to establish a business case.

This depends on the number of people expected to use the trains, and any other financial benefits which can be expected. These figures cannot be plucked out of the air. They have to be based on solid, provable expectations.

Nevertheless, there have been several re-openings, mostly in Scotland.

In most cases, the number of passengers expected in the first year, as predicted in the business case, was actually achieved within the first three or four months of opening.

This re-assertion of the British attitude to public transport – that it is a business – is in contrast to the attitude in most other parts of the world, where it is regarded as a service justifying state assistance.

It is demonstrable that the existence of good public transport benefits the wider economy, and not only the people who use it.

This is more difficult to quantify in terms of hard cash, but it opens up employment opportunities and has enormous social benefits.

Many of the rail closures 50 years ago would not have happened if the government had been more far-sighted.

As it was, the only criterion used was profitability. The then Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, simply wanted to stem the losses made by the railways without taking into account any of their indirect economic and social benefits.

He appointed as Minister of Transport Ernest Marples, a man whose business was to build roads, and gave him the responsibility to adjudicate on railway closures.

He in turn appointed a brilliant economist, with little knowledge of transport, and gave him a bus map, which showed that virtually no communities would be left isolated if there were no railways.

The result was inevitable. Only the long-distance and heavily-used commuter routes would remain. Wayside stations on the main lines would be closed. It all happened so fast that opposition was not organised sufficiently well or in time to stop it.

The philosophy was that even the long-distance services would decline as the motorway network developed so the British Railways Board struggled for years to obtain approval for developments, such as main-line electrification. The board was so cash-strapped it could not carry out the full maintenance regime a busy railway required.

It was not until the turn of the century that the Government finally admitted that perhaps people really did want their railways.

The number of passengers has risen 70 per cent in a decade. It was 2009 before Lord Adonis, then Transport Secretary, kick-started the developments now gathering pace in England.

Scotland has been quicker off the mark. Many stations and several lines have been re-opened or developed, and electrification is being undertaken in the more heavily-populated central belt.

Two of these developments are taking place in the Scottish Borders, our next-door neighbour. The Borders Railway, closed in January 1969, is being re-opened between Edinburgh and Tweedbank in September, and Reston station, north of Berwick, is to re-open within the next year or two.

It has been suggested that this part of the county would benefit from a closer association with Scotland.

The English believe that Hadrian’s Wall is the border. Perhaps it should be.

John Wylde is the author of Integrated Transport: A Will-o’-the-Wisp? and Experiments in Public Transport Operation. The books, priced £14.95 and £11.95 respectively, are available to readers for £11.95 or £9.95, postage included, from the Morpeth Herald office or online www.john-wylde.co.uk