TRANSPORT: Closures go into reverse

Northumberland retains a core route pattern of local bus services, and is better off than some counties.
Northumberland retains a core route pattern of local bus services, and is better off than some counties.

In preparation for the General Election in May, there is a movement to secure commitments by politicians to retain the bus pass for the elderly and disabled, free of charge at the point of use.

When John Prescott was put in charge of transport policy in 1997, he rashly undertook to increase the use of buses as a way of reducing car mileage. Bus use had been steadily declining for years, so he lived dangerously and set targets for achieving this.

His targets were not met, so it was thought that giving the elderly free travel on buses would cut the mustard.

In practice, the chief effect of having free travel for the elderly has been to complicate the way in which bus operators receive much of their revenue, which now comes through the local authorities rather than direct from the passengers.

The operators have been complaining that local authorities keep reducing the amount they pay them.

The local authorities complain that the Government does not give them enough money to be able to pay the operators properly, while the Government insists that it does.

Perhaps the dilemma would be solved, or at least reduced, if the bus pass were not entirely free to use, but subject to a flat fare of £1. Virtually no bus fares are less than £1 nowadays, and this would probably still be cheaper for three or four people to travel by bus rather than share a taxi.

The chaos experienced by passengers at some of the major London stations during the Christmas holiday period was due to over-running engineering works. In the past, this sort of difficulty would have been lessened because of the alternative routes available. Depending on where they were coming from or going to, some of the Kings Cross trains might have been diverted to Liverpool Street or St Pancras, but this sort of flexibility is no longer available.

Engineering works are inevitable, of course, both for basic maintenance and for carrying out improvements necessary because of the ever-increasing demand for rail travel, which is not only from passengers, but also from freight operators, who are having increasing difficulty in finding ‘paths’ for their trains.

The troubles we experience now are partly due to the policy 50 years ago of closing duplicate routes. Replacement buses, which passengers hate, would be unnecessary if the trains could be diverted over lines which no longer exist. The business case for reopening some of them is therefore not wholly dependant on the level of passenger traffic, but also partly on a line’s value as a freight route and its availability as a diversionary route.

Fifty years ago the railway network was in the process of being heavily pruned. The process took a decade, which is undue haste when you are dealing with something the size of the British railway system. Now the process is going the other way, with stations, lines and services rapidly being restored and reinstated.

Local groups are active in building a case for many lines which were closed then, but which have a viable future now if the business case can be proved. Closure happened with undue haste, but the case for restoration takes very much longer. Perseverance pays, however, and our neighbours to the north are about to experience success.

The Borders Railway, part of the former Waverley line from Edinburgh to Carlisle, is to reopen between Edinburgh and Galashiels (Tweedbank) next September, and another station in the Borders, closed in 1964, is due to reopen in December 2016.

Reston, midway between Duns and Eyemouth, serves the eastern Borders. It is being reopened as part of a scheme to re-introduce local train services between Edinburgh and Berwick. These are by way of an extension of those which have already been re-established between Edinburgh and Dunbar. Once they settle in at Berwick, their extension to Newcastle would restore local services to Northumberland. Whether this happens will depend very much on whether the potential users of the local stations in Northumberland press for it.

The reopening of Belford station is already in the Northumberland Local Plan, as is the re-establishment of services to Alnwick. The Aln Valley Railway will test demand there. The Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line is also in the Plan in response to local demand.