If you’re the kind of person who enjoys camping under starlight whilst eating potatoes cooked in lager cans (or for that matter, actual proper food served in a castle with actual proper beds), there’s a great option for you in the Small Isles off the west coast of Scotland, a ferry ride away from Mallaig. The most highly recommended way to travel here is via the West Highland line, regarded as one of the most scenic railway journeys in the United Kingdom, with a line which twists and turns around, and occasionally through, the mountains of northern Scotland, involving negotiating Ranoch Moor and Corrour, the highest and most remote railway station in the country.
It’s not headline news to learn that this line is incredibly popular with tourists travelling from Glasgow through Fort William to either Oban or Mallaig, whilst the intermediate stations enjoy sporadic visitor numbers. If Tim Leunig, chief economist at CentreForum (no, me neither) had his way, lines such as West Highland and stations such as Spean Bridge, Bridge of Orchy and Upper Tyndrum would be shut down for purely economic purposes. Leunig, you see, wants the Government to close down 30% of Britain’s railway stations.
His reasoning is pure Beeching, and purely cold economics in the grand tradition of conservatives for whom monetary concern trumps everything else. In the context of serious concern about the cost of the railways in this country, it’s no surprise to see both political wings unleash their most extreme responses – nationalisation from the left, harsh economic penalties from the right. As usual, it’s hopeless finding answers from either extreme, for the answers lie somewhere in the middle. Leunig, and many who support him, has drawn the wrong conclusions from his available evidence through what seems to be an ignorance about the realities of rail travel in the UK. This might come as little surprise too – anyone who deals with numbers over experience can’t be entirely trusted to understand the consequence of their mathematics.
Let’s deal with the West Highland Line. If these proposals were ever to be introduced, the line would barely survive, with it’s 20-odd station stops between Glasgow Queen Street and Mallaig reduced to just three stations; Dumbarton, Fort William and Mallaig itself. Any budding tourist trap, from cafes to walking pursuit organisations, would shut down overnight. Whatever pressure is already forced onto authorities to supply bus or coach links to Scotland’s most remote villages would be increased to such perverse levels that the character in 50 Shades of Grey would feel a bit uneasy. From being one of the UK’s best loved rail routes, the WHL would be reduced to a high-speed tourist trap, hurtling local people and holiday-makers alike through the Highlands in a fast-forward version of a promotional video.
Taken as a whole, the proposal would rob communities of their links to bigger cities, from which follows employment and leisure opportunities. “Let the buses take the strain” made some form of twisted sense in the days of Beeching, who viewed the railways as hopelessly out-dated and out-moded. Had Beeching and his successors been allowed to continue, the UK would be unlike any other country in the developed world, lacking railways out to the suburbs, tourist towns and local communities, employing instead two unconnected super-highway rail lines connecting no more than five major cities together. It’d be impossible to even cross Birmingham, with no link between one side and the other. If you didn’t have a car, or maybe a helicopter, the railways would be inaccessible to you, forever. Londoners could not visit friends or family in any of the Home Counties immediately surrounding their city, whilst enjoying a rapid high speed ride to Leeds, the first and only English station stop between them and Edinburgh.
Leunig calls leaving stations open as “a preposterous waste of money”. He doesn’t offer much in the way of figures for this, though this might be because there’s little evidence to suggest closing a station is no more affordable than allowing passengers to board a train which might only make one visit every hour. There are bus services to parts of Preston, where I live, less frequent than train services to Lostock Hall, with both realities no more able to ‘disprove’ the worth of the other than any comparison which might be made between the footfall enjoyed by McDonalds and the independent cafe three streets away. In any case, keeping a station open is actually less difficult and cheaper than closing one down, as the legal process of closing down railway stations is so complicated that they’re invariably kept open. “Parliamentary trains”, so called because of the need to clumsily circumnavigate various Railway Acts, are maintained by TOCs to provide a rudimentary service in place of spending the money to remove all trains completely. The 30% plan would, therefore, cost more money than Leunig realises. To slash so many stations from the network would require TOCs to run hundreds of make-believe trains around the country, often unadvertised deliberately, as part of a ludicrous game of ‘efficiency savings top trumps’.
Beeching transformed our rail network, and did so in all the worst possible ways you could imagine. It’s beyond bizarre that anyone could consider it appropriate to use Beeching as a blueprint for further reforms, a kind of abusive partner-meets-Stockholm syndrome set-up, drawn from years of feeling turned on whenever anybody mentions “Thatcher”, “tell Sid” or “it’s a replacement bus service leaving from the station forecourt”. What we should be doing – well, what Conservatives should be doing at the very least – is encouraging building MORE stations in MORE locations, adding increased numbers of blobs on rail-maps to allow people greater access to the existing network. George Osborne’s infrastructure plan allowed for the construction of just two new stations across the whole of England – Apperley Bridge and Kirkstall Forge in Yorkshire. He should have allowed the construction of dozens, and then hundreds, and then yet more, bringing people who live in the outcrops and environs the opportunity to access the national network. More construction jobs, more income generated in parts of our cities and major towns which often feel ‘isolated’ from big bang projects, more opportunities for businesses to recruit from a wider net.
In case you thought that your eyes deceived you, Leunig also recommends the introduction of a ‘standing class’ London train, in which people would pay a £1 fare for the right to have no seats at all, as standard. This policy is all manner of bonkers, for reasons of health and safety as well as common human decency, though it’s also worth noting that the Railway Regulation Act 1844 ensured that passengers could no longer be subjected to such inhumane treatment by rail companies.
What riles me more than anything related to the railway issue is just how repetitive these arguments have become. Whilst the country umms and aahs about building a single new station, or electrifying one length of track, Spain continues to build the longest metro line in Europe, and renowned rail networks in Germany and Italy continue to expand for much less money than it could ever be done here. We’re a backward, slow, ponderous country whose attitude to infrastructure projects is stuck in the steam age. Anybody who considers it correct that we should assist our railway service by slashing it to pieces deserves locking in a waiting room over night without even a Select vending machine for company.