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"Disconnected! Broken links in Britain's rail policy" by Chris Austin, OBE - Edinburgh meeting of 13 January 2016

Chris Austin at the Edinburgh meeting.d

Chris Austin at the Edinburgh meeting.

© John Yellowlees, 2014

Lines that should be restored was the genesis of this sequel to "Holding the Line", research for which had taken Chris and his co-author Richard Faulkner through libraries, archives and privately-collected documents to unearth some astounding policy developments - how, once the obvious closure candidates had been despatched, others were added to the Beeching process which were the ones that we now needed to reopen.

It was astonishing that BR continued campaigning into the 1980s for bus substitution when as Paul Theroux had put it in "The Kingdom by the Sea" buses weren't the answer, they weren't even the question. The authors had gone onto expose the unfairness of the whole clandestine process which led to wanton destruction of structures with networks sold off piecemeal instead of being safeguarded for alternative transport purposes.

Readers' memories had been invoked by the account of events forty years ago, and the emergent hero was "Railway Gazette" editor Richard Hope for his exposure of the lunacy in the Serpell Report's Option A, while also revealed was the skulduggery over the Class 56 manning agreement with Department of Transport interference in matters that were none of their business. In 1972 "The Sunday Times" had brought to public view a blue paper reviewing rail policy which proposed reducing the rail network from 11,000 to 6700 route-miles with no surviving lines in the Scottish Highlands, mid-Wales or Cornwall.

After a huge outcry, minister for transport industries John Peyton pledged to keep the network at broadly the same size, as it has since endured to this day, but it was not known was who had been responsible for the leak until the death in 2012 of an assistant secretary called Reg Dawson. As a supporter of the Talyllyn Railway, he had secured a grant for a summer Sunday service on the Cambrian Coast Line but on catching sight of the review's recommendation as to its closure was so moved that, oblivious to its highest security rating, he sent it to Richard Hope in the face of agonies as to the risks of prosecution, jail, police raids and blackmail.

Politicians were mostly blameless for the formulation of closure proposals, and case-studies reviewed in "Disconnected!" included the Great Central which, though not built to full Berne standards, incorporated the latest Board of Trade recommendations and with its minimal curvature, absence of level crossings and prevailing 1 in 176 gradient would have been ideal for High Speed Trains and better for containers than the routes that have survived.

A Scottish equivalent was the Strathmore line through Forfar that offered a faster and more resilient route than the roundabout one through Dundee that now links Glasgow with Aberdeen. The East-West line was a barmy addition to the Beeching Report just as Milton Keynes was being designated, and after 42 years of campaigning against the lethargy, obstruction, inefficiency and complexity of officialdom which should be compulsory reading for any promoters was now at last headed for reopening, demonstrating the gulf left by lack of a single authority in England to help match the much shorter sharper success of the Borders Railway.

Freight was more significant in the 1960s, though even now some 780 miles of freight-only line survive, and closure of the Didcot, Newbury & Southampton put pressure on the already congested London & South Western main line while the road lobby carved up the trackbed for highway improvements, leading to clashes with anti-motorway protestors at Newbury and Twyford Down (with nearby Shawford Viaduct surviving as a footpath) and to the very expensive grade-separation for railfreight at Reading.

Chris could find no evidence of conspiracy with the road-builders to close the direct Edinburgh-Perth line through Glenfarg since another option would have been chosen for the M90 had the railway remained. It had been Reg Dawson's signature on the letter of consent to that closure, and in an unusual initiative BR Scottish Region subsequently reopened the Ladybank route but it was nine miles longer than Glenfarg.

Loss of the Port Road between Stranraer and Dumfries in 1965 left freight and the Sleeper with a great way round via Kilmarnock, and the Princes Risborough-Thame route closed in 1963 had been shorter than the present London-Oxford main line via Didcot. It was now to be hoped that the Borders Railway would be a catalyst for the further advance of the reopening process that had seen 150 miles and 388 stations created or restored since 1965 and had been greatly helped by the legislation on experimental openings introduced by the late Tony Speller which had delivered over 100 stations now included in franchises.

Closure of the short and efficient branch from Yatton to the quaint Somerset resort of Clevedon had lost more revenue than it achieved savings, but was justified in terms of the scrap value, sale of land and avoidance of an M5 bridge that it achieved. The case for closing the nearby Portishead branch was sloppily presented, and with local roads already overcrowded the line beyond the reinstated Portbury terminal seems likely to be reinstated in 2019. City stations eliminated to save money and ease interchange included Edinburgh Princes Street and Leeds Central, but the arrival of HS2 will see return of a second main station in the latter city.

Birmingham Moor Street was nearly lost when on the Friday before closure Master of the Rolls Lord Denning granted an injunction in favour of the objectors, and fifteen years after closure Snow Hill had to be reinstated to provide necessary capacity - now with the extended Midland Metro and HS2 coming to Curzon Street, Birmingham will soon be back to the number of platforms that it had had before Beeching, who saw no future for suburban trains in any city outside London. Thus in a curious reversal of late 1950s investment in diesel trains - perhaps as a result of misapplying costing tools - Edinburgh lost its comparatively lightly-used local network, the Corstorphine line being the last to go at end-1967, and North Berwick was saved only as a result of the intelligent campaign led by Norman Hall.

Towns not on the network that maybe should rejoin it would include St Andrews, added to the Beeching proposals after the opening of the Tay Road Bridge, where NIMBYs would inevitably object to reinstatement of track between the Old Course Hotel and the Royal & Ancient and the case for reopening must recognise that there are now up to 9 buses an hour with train-to-bus through ticketing and real-time train running information available at the bus station.

The book recommends 39 routes for reopening which at 530 miles would add just 5% to the present network of 10625 miles. With latest station openings including Cranbrook which gives residents of a quasi-new town opportunities for commuting to Exeter or going up to London, the cry should now be for the Borders Railway to go to Hawick and beyond, and both authors are especially encouraged by commitments to modernise the offering in the new Northern franchise which are a tribute to the campaigners who over the years persuaded ministers to override the transport economists in the Department.

Report and photograph by John Yellowlees.

 

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