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Transport’s number one climate change resilience project

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In the closing days of 2020, Dr Nicola Forsdike reminded us, in a paper written for the Rail Reform Group, (see ref 1) of an important thesis set out by Mark Casson (see ref 2).  His conclusion was that Britain’s railway network – the world’s first which today we like to celebrate as a magnificent inheritance – was in fact incredibly inefficient.

Nicola points out the typical failure to develop single hub stations in our major cities: compare and contrast with the continental European model where state-planned networks were the fashion, unlike the British private enterprise model. She cites London, Manchester and Leeds (but could have added Glasgow, Birmingham, Nottingham, Liverpool…).

But she doesn’t mention the other striking inadequacy: the tendency to build dead-end branch lines. These turned out to be poor investments in general, built on the cheap, expensive to run and with a lesser, but still significant, urban failing – they often fell shy of the towns they set out to reach. Most, of course, have been closed, long since. Nicola summarises Mark Casson’s work well:

“In contrast to the railway system that was developed, Casson’s counterfactual model of an efficient railway for Britain has stronger city hubs and a much better cross-country network  than the one we are forced to work with now.”

It might be thought that there is little now to be gained by trying to put right a transport network fashioned in the century before private road based transport took over. And Nicola, for one, is gloomy about the prospects for a recovery in rail travel post-Covid-19. (Personally, I think it is too soon to tell).

But we should agree with her on the relevance of a suggested way forward in which she suggests trying (this will be a first) a network planning approach. This, she adds: “might mean having the courage to close some routes or stations” and that “new rail schemes should not [be] developed piecemeal as a series of one-off schemes”.

In fact this message is highly topical. It provides a challenge both to the largest of today’s rail projects – HS2 (and its as yet unborn off-spring, Northern Powerhouse Rail, and the less well-known Midlands Rail Engine); and to the smallest – the ‘reversing Beeching’ process that Government has in play to re-open lost branch lines and local stations on main lines.

HS2 provides the kind of strategic route that Mark Casson says we have lacked as a nation. But it has been envisaged largely as a sub-system operating into a set of terminus stations which, while it is hoped will form strong city hubs (à la St Pancras), there is a still a risk of re-creating the disconnects of the Victorian era. This is one of the several issues usefully raised by the recent National Infrastructure Commission’s report that forms advice to Government of the rail needs of the North of England and  the Midlands (see ref 3).

At the other end of the scale, the ‘reversing Beeching’ schemes are popular in a way that HS2 has struggled to be. Seemingly, re-instating branch lines closed for 50 years or more across rural England rather than building new ones with today’s leading edge technology fits more readily with the national psyche. Discuss!

Rural branch lines and stations on main lines are of course local in scale (but they are not cheap: new stations can typically cost say £25m, once today’s safety and access requirements are taken into account). They are a risk nonetheless, and in general, they fail to follow a network approach as advocated by both Casson and Forsdike.

There are two specific areas of concern.

The first is that many of today’s longer distance (main line) railways offer reasonably competitive journey times because local stations were closed (in response to the 1960s Beeching Report mainly). Are these journey times to be extended to pick up passengers from the re-opened stations and halts, extending through journey times by 3-5 minutes each time a train calls? Or are additional, local, services to be run, and if so, are the extra costs worthwhile and can the additional services be fitted into the timetables when they reach what are generally congested sections of the network in the nearest city? The Department for Transport is of course aware of these issues, although the marginal costs of adding in a new train service has been regarded as ‘commercially sensitive’ for the last 25 years of services provided through franchising.

The second concern is with branch lines. In general they may be popular, but while there are no doubt exceptions, most were closed because they were little used and costly to operate.

The first simple exam question should be: does this form part of a forward-looking network plan? And the second: what’s changed – on both sides of the cost (revenue + benefits) ratio – to make line and service re-instatement such a good idea?

Nicola’s forward looking plans do exist for questions such as existing route electrification – but none consider whether the rail network we happen to have in 2021 is the right one. So sadly the answer to the first question in all cases will be, no, because there isn’t a network plan as such.

A great example of where we may repeat the errors of 19th century railway planning arises in Devon. Here there were once two competing railway lines built to connect Exeter and Plymouth. This is a true case of Mark Casson’s ‘wasteful rival schemes to key ports’, with Brunel’s Great Western Railway literally following the south coast and estuaries before turning inland to skirt the south side of Dartmoor, doing so with fierce gradients across Devon-clay farmland. It was followed by the London and South Western Railway’s alternative route which headed inland from Exeter and was built on the granite around the north side of Dartmoor. One strand of Dr Beeching’s economy drive was to eliminate ‘duplicate routes’ and so by 1970, the L&SW route was left as two stub-end branches, only one of which has had regular passenger services ever since. At least the two railway companies had the decency to share the two main stations at Plymouth and Exeter.

What’s in store under the reversing Beeching programme is a restoration of parts of the missing L&SW service, initially with a branch line shuttle linking Exeter and Okehampton, potentially followed by a restored railway to the southern fringe of Tavistock linked to Plymouth. In between is a 20 mile gap. Oh dear: in place of a valuable through route, two branches would be created!

Any sensible forward looking plan would set out the case to re-create the northern route in its entirety, electrified of course. Why, you ask – what’s changed to need two routes where one should suffice? The answer is this: global warming and sea level rises and associated increased weather extremes. Network Rail will rightly prioritise protective works along the coastal GWR route, but further breaches of this line inevitably continue. In 2014, it meant that south Devon and Cornwall were cut off from the rest of the national rail network for two months. This must be the national railway’s number 1 climate resilience challenge. As of now, the main remedial works on the coastal line through Dawlish-Teignmouth are yet to be determined.

A complete second route allows services to be introduced on the L&SW route with through services, offering much better train operating economics than dead end branch shuttles can provide. It will also provide the essential resilience sustainable transport connectivity the South West economy needs. By all means re-open Exeter-Okehampton and Plymouth-Tavistock as interim steps, but there must surely be a long term network plan as Nicola Forsdike called for.

Jim Steer

Greengauge 21

5th January 2021

Ref 1 – See A Railway Fit for The Future – Rail Reform Group 16th December 2020

Ref 2 – Mark Casson, The World’s First Railway System, Enterprise, Competition, and Regulation of the Railway Network in Victorian Britain, Oxford University Press, 2009.

Ref 3 – 15th December 2020