by Niall Gooch
Wednesday, 24
November 2021

Is Britain on track for a rail renaissance?

The re-opening of Okehampton in Devon sets a hopeful precedent
by Niall Gooch
Transport secretary Grant Shapps steps off at Oakhampton

Last Saturday was a special occasion for the people of Okehampton in Devon and for railway buffs everywhere. After almost fifty years without a regular passenger train service — thanks Dr Beeching! — the station in the town was fully re-opened. There will now be trains between Okehampton and Exeter every two hours, seven days a week. If campaigners get their way, this restoration will be only the first stage of a full reinstatement of the northern route between Exeter and Plymouth. This line — used more than once by Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson during their adventures — took passengers around the edge of Dartmoor through some truly lovely countryside. It also had an important “strategic” role as an alternative to the coastal route, which is occasionally washed away by big Channel storms.

It’s hard not to feel delighted for the enthusiasts and dogged locals who have fought long and hard for the return of the railway. Dartmoor sees millions of visitors every year, and Okehampton is one of the key tourism bases for the National Park. What I find particularly striking and encouraging is that there are similar groups all over the country, and similar moves towards undoing some of the more foolish cuts of the last century. 

In 2015, for example, the Queen presided at the opening ceremony for the Borders Railway, from Edinburgh to Tweedbank. This was a partial reinstatement of the old “Waverley Route”, so nicknamed because the great author Sir Walter Scott, who wrote the novel Waverley, lived in mock-baronial splendour at Abbotsford close to the line. In its heyday, before the Axe fell in 1969, the Waverley continued well beyond Tweedbank, winding south through the rugged majesty of the Cheviot Hills all the way to Carlisle.  

Just over the border, north of Newcastle, work has now begun on the Northumberland Line, intended to help revitalise the struggling small towns of the Northumbrian coalfields. Once again, this is a revival rather than a completely new project: the area used to be served by the Blyth and Tyne Railway until the decline of coal mining and other heavy industry in the area led to the withdrawal of services.    

Further south, it was confirmed earlier this year that the Varsity Line between Oxford and Cambridge — one of the more inexplicable casualties of Beeching — would be reinstated. This is no mere elite vanity project — both cities are now important economic hubs. There has been talk of the building of new garden cities in the corridor between the two places. More importantly, a renewed rail connection would hopefully obviate the need for the Oxford-Cambridge Expressway, a planned but currently suspended road project which would be enormously destructive of pleasant countryside and would do nothing to reduce our over-dependence on private cars.

Even the controversial HS2 is to some degree the reconstruction of another line that fell victim to short-sighted transport planners. The Great Central Main Line, opened in 1899, was the last of the great Victorian railway projects, and became an important freight route between London, the Midlands and Manchester. The GCML was closed because it was considered to duplicate existing routes; fifty years on, one of the key reasons given for HS2 is that there is just not enough capacity on existing lines between London and places like Birmingham and the Liverpool-Manchester-Leeds conurbation. 

It would perhaps be optimistic to talk of a rail renaissance, given the government’s doubtful ability to get large-scale projects done — only recently it was confirmed that the eastern leg of HS2 is to be cancelled and that plans for better connections within the M62 corridor had been significantly scaled down.

All the same, the trend is most definitely in the right direction. A revival is not a golden bullet; but it is essential for a greener and less congested Britain. 

Join the discussion

  • The article seems a tad romantic, gushing over the leisurely rail trips around Dartmoor and the revival of branch lines in the Scottish borders. If this brings an economic benefit to those regions that outweighs the cost of opening and running those lines, then I am all for it. I suspect that if there is a net economic benefit, then that is only because they have re-opened previously existing lines (on land already under Network Rail / Govt ownership) and therefore did not have to spend too much on the infrastructure required to re-open the lines.
    The economics associated with building brand new railways are a lot more harsh. The cost benefits take into account reduced journey times and assume that that a certain percentage of passengers are travelling on business and that, if they were not sat on a train earning nothing, then they would be active in the economy and contributing to the UK GDP at an assumed hourly rate. Except some of those business people are at least attempting to work on the train already, and others, if they are saving on their commuting time into the office, would spend their saved time doing things other than working. The alleged benefits also include for economic revitalisation of those towns served by the new rail link, which are inherently difficult to quantify. There is ample opportunity for those promoting such schemes to ‘big up’ the economic benefits.
    By contrast, the UK rail industry (or, more importantly, their political masters) have a very poor record of anticipating the economic costs. They have a record of underestimating the cost of acquiring land, obtaining planning consents and mitigating environmental impacts. They fail to understand that the technical difficulties of building a new rail line increase exponentially with speed, so that their attempts to trim journey times to bolster their economic case induce even bigger costs associated with the design. And the whole industry, despite being part privatised, is run along the lines of the civil service and tolerates huge inefficiencies.
    I suspect that Boris and co understand this in part – but they have to keep the dream alive as part of their levelling-up agenda as well as having some sexy projects to boast of.
    Meanwhile, re-opening branch lines and upgrading existing local and regional lines might bring more economic benefit than designing and building new high speed lines. It’s just that such schemes are not sexy enough for our politicians.

  • Getting a train to or from Manchester Airport is enough to put you off going on holiday for life. I’ve never taken a train to Manchester which wasn’t overcrowded, late or cancelled before reaching its destination.

  • The trains that ran between Manchester Airport and York, for a long time, did not have luggage racks. That tells you all you need to know.

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