Investment at long last in the railways

Wetheral station on the Tyne Valley line being prepared for re-opening in 1981.
Wetheral station on the Tyne Valley line being prepared for re-opening in 1981.

Investment in public transport has taken a considerable upturn in the last few years.

When Dr Beeching was given the job of trimming the railway network 55 years ago it created a mind-set in government, and some parts of British Railways, that almost the whole system would be in managed decline until it vanished.

The process was begun by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and executed by Ernest Marples, Minister of Transport. Marples had a business in road building.

There was a resistance to carrying out anything but day-to-day maintenance on the railway network, and absolutely no question of improvement or development.

Some railway managers would not accept this, and against all odds succeeded in obtaining approval for electrification on the West Coast Main Line, for which a closure of the Waverley Line from Edinburgh to Carlisle was demanded.

Re-structuring of railway management in the 1980s transformed finances, and further efforts resulted in the electrification of the East Coast Main Line in 1991.

Privatised train operators in the 1990s reaped the rewards, although it took almost a decade into the new century before the Government was convinced that railways were on the upturn and started to seriously address the backlog of neglect, which has gained momentum and will continue for some years to come.

The last line to be closed under the Beeching programme was Haltwhistle to Alston in 1976, although the Settle and Carlisle line, a famous scenic route, narrowly escaped closure in the 1980s. Its fortunes were saved by the railway manager who was appointed to oversee its closure, who saw its possibilities and whose instincts as a railwayman led him to revive the line, backed by local support.

A small, but surprising investment was made by British Rail when it re-opened Wetheral station on the Tyne Valley line near Carlisle in 1981, only five years after the closure of the Alston line. Small stations near major stations have not normally been treated like this as passengers have preferred to drive to the main stations, hence the investment in car parking facilities at key stations. Attempts are being made to improve the situation at Berwick. A solution is going to have to be found there.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher appointed Sir David Serpell, a high-ranking civil servant, to publish a report in 1983 designed to carry on from Beeching and get rid of as much as possible of the remaining railway system. This was received badly and the report virtually sank without trace.

Transport is a devolved function of the Scottish Parliament, which has resulted in promising advances in Scotland. The obvious one is the Borders Railway, a first step towards restoring the Waverley route closed in 1969. In common with other re-openings, the number of passengers required in a year to justify the investment was met in the first three or four months.

However, it was a mistake to commit so much Borders Railway infrastructure to being single track, which is proving so limiting to services, and their reliability. It is going to be so expensive to double the track when that has to be done, as it will eventually.

The other mistake with the Borders Railway was not to electrify it from the outset as so much of the Scottish railway network is in the process of being electrified.

In England, it is much more difficult to persuade the decision-makers in London to agree to investment in the North East.

However, the grape-vine suggests there is yet hope for the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line in South East Northumberland, and there is at last some interest being shown in the possibility of improved local services on the East Coast Main Line in Northumberland to link up with the promised local services between Berwick and Edinburgh.

John Wylde is the author of Integrated Transport – a Will-o’- the-wisp? This book is priced at £14.95, post paid and signed by the author. Also Experiments in Public Transport Operation at £11.95. Order through the author’s website www.john-wylde.co.uk