Platform alterations…

I don’t need to tell you that I’m a fan of the railways, having walked an abandoned line from Southport to Preston, and joined blogger Michael Holdsworth on a similar walk into Preston from Grimsargh. That’s just scraping the surface; I grew up fascinated by trains, travelling on them, with them, and with an almost autistic attachment to the stations along each route. No need to wait for a muffled announcement about the train now approaching, as I can rattle off the poetry of station calls on my own; Leyland, Wigan North Western, Bryn, Garswood, St Helens Central…

My love of the railways extends to defending (to a point) the ramshackle approach towards infrastructure and spending in this country. We don’t do it particularly well, and never have. As romantic a view as I’ve always had about them good old days, it doesn’t take long to find contemporary reports from passengers in the 1950s and 1960s that remind us today that British rail has always been crowded, under-funded and bloated with management. The Government department in charge of looking after the whole thing has not been a champion of rail for generations, preferring roads and cars and the motor industry millions that goes with it. Rail has suffered not just because of our love of the car, but because it’s simply far sexier for an MP to sign off another motorway junction than it is a train station.

Which is where we find ourselves with the “HS2” scheme to build a new railway line – “the biggest amount of rail infrastructure spending since the Victorians” – from a new hub outside Heathrow into Birmingham, thence to Manchester in the West and Leeds/Sheffield in the East. A highly controversial and contentious piece of infrastructure spending, and exactly the kind of “pay now, yield the results later” long-term planning for which the DfT has a reputation of shunning in normal circumstances. In its hope to poke economic growth with a stick, the DfT has become the main cheerleader for “HS2” and connected purposes, claiming that the line is vital to bring economic growth to the country, bring northern England new employment opportunities and to free up capacity on the creaking, over-capacity WCML.

And I’m against “HS2”.  Used to be quite neutral, then moved towards being broadly in favour, and now against. Typical LibDem, right?

But the case for “HS2” was always quite flimsy and liquid. I just can’t say that it’s looking particularly strong enough now to justify the strength with which so many fingers are crossed.

One of the best economic cases against “HS2” comes, oddly enough, from tech-site The Register, which blasts the cost-benefit analysis by using its own level headed approach towards the assumption that the commuters of 20-years hence will be the same as those today. The numbers from the Government side don’t add up very well.

The Government assumes that high-speed, long distance travel has to be needed in the 2020s and 2030s because jobs will always be in offices down south, and workers will always be in commuter homes in Solihull and Hazel Grove and Normanton. Link the north with the south, they say, and jobs will be “secured” and growth will be “encouraged”. But what jobs and what growth? There’s always commuters willing to travel, only not from one end of the country to another, and if the percentage of people who require a flight from Manchester to London City Airport is X today, there’s no guarantee that it’ll be “X+” in 2030. As The Register points out, the business traveller who is used to justify the cost is already spending days working from home and hours working en route; what cost analysis exists to prove they’d be happier scrapping all that for a traditional 9-5 in 30 years time?

No such case exists.

A screenplay for “There Will Be Billions” is being drafted. Work at London Euston alone is estimated today to be somewhere around £1.2 billion and will only go higher. The total spend across the network can only be considerably higher than £2 billion. Public expenditure on the project could be in the area of £900 million by the time of the general election, and there’s almost no chance of Parliamentary Scrutiny outside painfully awkward appearances in front of the Public Accounts Committee. The existing proposed route from London into Birmingham and then beyond has already been altered – at cost – due to the “they’ve used a flat map!” approach to deciding on the route. New stations have had to be proposed to placate complaints, much in the same way as unnecessary junctions were added to the M25 to stop people complaining about their back-gardens being ruined in the 1980s.

As you might have heard, the M25 still gets congested quite a lot, despite the amount of extra junctions and numerous extensions.  “HS2” is exactly the same – lots of new stations (slowing down a supposed High Speed line in the process) without improving the existing network.

At the time of writing, the cost/benefit analysis of “HS2” has plummeted to 90p in the pound (source ), and that’s not likely to get any better. Three times as many journeys are into London, not from it, sucking money away from the very outer regions towards the very conurbation Ministers claim needs no further help. Building a new “HS2” station in central Manchester will require existing track to be re-routed, creating a shambles of delay and construction chaos which can only be repeated twenty-fold across every part of its proposed — and as yet unconfirmed — route.

We already have some of the highest fares anywhere in Europe, and those can only grow higher and higher. My love of the railways means there’s only one way to save the network from itself. Scrap “HS2” now to focus on specific regional issues. Force franchise holders to update rolling stock, build new stations, and work on expanding the existing lines such as the WCML. Hard love is admitting that the best way to save the thing you love is not to do the obvious. “HS2” is too obvious, and too clearly flawed. To save the railways, it needs abandoning.

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Walking West Lancs (part 2)

Venturing along the former West Lancashire Line from Preston to Southport was not going to be easy (or for that matter, particularly easy to explain to people who wondered what I was doing.)

Part 1 of my journey presented a mixed bag of remnants of history. The imposing stone columns spanning the Ribble, the steep embankment at Penwortham, the shattered fences at Hoole – there’s not a  lot remaining from decades of passenger and freight use. The line from Penwortham into Longton has essentially vanished, retaining its presence only through the distinctive cut which makes its way through the fields on a Google Maps aerial view.

Southport

Concrete transport hub not under threat
from its Council


Reportedly the influence for the Champs-Élysées, Southport is ‘posh Merseyside’, an outcrop of Lancashire cut off from the rest of the county by nothing more important than the swipe of an administrator’s pencil. Back in the mid-1970s, the long and protracted post-war reorganisation of local council administration was finally put into action taking the old model of bits-and-pieces Britain into a mix of one- and two-tier authorities, including massive metropolitan boroughs whose names live on today. “Greater Manchester”, “Merseyside”, even “Avon” (…maybe…) – they all remain in the national consciousness, long since after they were abolished.

Maps of the time show Southport has had plenty of changes to its rail map, partly in response to the popularity of the town as a tourist location for the well-heeled traveller. One of the most significant changes, of course, was the closure of the West Lancashire Line, which has left a noticeable (just) space between streets and avenues between the outer boundary and the town centre.  Southport’s main station is a concrete box facing the shopping arcades away from the fancy faces of Lord Street, with more brand names than boutiques (though Lord Street isn’t what it was, let’s be honest).

The concrete block has been spruced up somewhat, mind, with a Merseyrail “one stop shop” fitted, a kind of ticket office-meets-corner shop. It is the “end of the line” in the same way Liverpool Lime Street is at the other side of the ex-county of Merseyside, all ticket gates and Merseyrail’s distinctive yellow coaches. As with Lime Street, slightly different coaches from Northern Rail stop here too, though these days the destinations are Wigan and Manchester, not Preston or Blackburn.

What makes things difficult to ‘rediscover’ is just how convoluted the map used to be around here. In short, Southport has been the location of stations called:

Southport (Chapel Street)
Southport Central
Southport Windsor Road (aka Southport Ash Street)
(Southport) St Lukes

And for good measure Lord Street.

My first biro circle on a map is St Lukes, which seems to have been in two places at once. No wonder I was already set for a day of confusion. The walk takes me up Mornington Road and Kensington Road towards St Luke’s Road. There are pubs along the route, either shut for good or looking very much like they are, and women chatting in an Eastern European language walk towards me at regular intervals. It’s “very bay window” as a wise woman might once have said. When I get to St Luke’s Road there’s only one place I can think of where the station must have been,  and with one track bending off into overgrown greenery, I guess this must be it.

The location of Southport St Luke’s, with the tell-tale
signs of a place long since lost to history (and nature)

Hesketh Park

I’ll be honest – this is where things started to go wrong, although I wouldn’t know until the end of the day that I’d ventured off course somewhat.

The location of Hesketh Park station, as the Google Maps approach only works as long as there’s trees alongside the gap where the line used to be, and in this case the line vanishes into a new-build rabbit warren called Preston Road. My rough working out had the station somewhere on/at/near Hesketh Drive, as Hibre Close seemed to be suspiciously rectangle shaped for my liking.

As it goes, this is probably quite accurate, and at least the bridge suggests its former life more than the back garden of a house does, so let’s call it a partial credit.

This part of Southport starts to get very leafy and house-pricey, by the way, and it’s only going to get more so as the town makes way for its two outermost suburbs; Crossens, and Southport.

Churchtown

Some places are more distinctive than others, even when subsumed into a larger conurbation, and Churchtown certainly is that. It’s got all the look of a place which has kept its distance from the larger town down the road, especially as everything and everywhere is marked “CHURCHTOWN”. I swear dogs had branded name-tags. What isn’t so different is the Merseytravel infrastructure, the blazing yellow bus-stops at every turn, regular buses from internal and regional travel tootling along at regular intervals.

At the main crossroads – marked at one point with kerbs branded “BOUNDARY” – there’s all the usual signs you’d expect, from a post office-cum-corner shop to a ladies who lunch style café. Alongside the row of shops is another suspiciously long, straight road, which has all the indications of a railway line to me.  Today it’s bounded by a Boots pharmacy and a GP surgery.

The line goes on, largely north-northeast, but I have to take a longer route around Balmoral Drive and deep into Crossens first, where things aren’t quite as bay window as only ten or so minutes before.

This road follows exactly the former line

 Crossens

Another point where I was uncertain about the exact location of the former line or platforms, though at least I was able to take a wander around a cul-de-sac without being stopped or arrested under terrorism charges, so maybe there’s hope for people who walk around taking photographs after all. On my trusty map, I’d circled the streets of Two Pools and The Crescent, thinking there’d be something approaching a clue to my accuracy. Well, as it turns out, if I had done anything wrong, I’d been looking the wrong way, facing out to the marshes and fields rather than the drives and front gardens, as this is where the station would actually have been.

As it turns out, not the location of the railway line,
which actually is at my feet.

The exact location is actually completely inaccessible, as it sits behind The Mallards. My photograph of the vast fields beyond almost misses the line completely; it was probably at my toes.

As I mentioned in passing last time, it’s perhaps not surprising that there’s little actual evidence around these days after forty years. There’s something else worth noting too – just how useful a train station would be round bout now. The population of these areas isn’t going down, nor are the roads becoming less busy. However slight the solution might be on congestion, a regular service along the line could make a dent.

Banks

Oops.

My logical brain circled “Station Road”, and took a photo of it, and then ventured onwards to the next stop. What I could have done was consider more maps a little more carefully, as the station was actually about ten strides away at the other side of Guinea Hall Lane.

Who is (was) Ralph? Or his wife?

As I couldn’t follow the line exactly, my walk had to take one heck of a detour, walking along the beautifully enigmatic “Ralph’s Wife’s Lane”. This is the first clue of true, rural Marsh Town Lancashire, with farms on either side, some occupied by sheep, some occupied by vegetables. The line carried on some distance from me, as I approached it from ‘the north’, walking down Hoole Lane towards my intended target. There didn’t seem to be much to do in Banks, with its social club boarded up and the pub apparently closed. (You can see my priorities, can’t you?)

And after walking for what seemed like hours to the next stop, guess what happened there?

Hundred End

Fracking is in the news a lot these days, and this is fracking country. The walk from Banks to Hundred End (named because it was the boundary point between the old Hundred of West Derby(shire) and Leyland(shire)) took me to within binocular-spying distance of the attempt by contractors to shake Blackpool to its core.

Before all that, however, let me rewind. Aveling Drive is unlike many streets you’d see if visiting Southport for a bit of shopping. Suddenly everything becomes uneven, without Tarmac and without street-lights. An industrial estate gives way to thick trees and yards full of geese and hens. This is your actual farming community, this be, and the deeper into it you go, the more and more remote things seem to become. I turn into Square House Lane, where there is a clear sign of where the railway line would have crossed, in this case in between a squat bungalow surrounded by well-tendered gardens, and a neat country-style home with large trees surrounding. The former railway line is an official public footpath, though my shoes and the weather conspired against me using it.

Now a footpath, this follows the old line exactly.

Hundred End is at the very end of a long, long walk, one without pavements, one without much safety for pedestrians at all, truth be told. The vast expanse of fields might not be Lincolnshire or Norfolk, but it has the same feel. There’s no surprise, I bet, that I miscalculated the exact location of the former station by the time I got there, though I did manage to capture a sunset, so another partial credit.

This is one of those places where a station in modern times would be considered highly dubious, even if every farmer in the area tried to send crops this way. There’s not enough people to justify a station, I’ll be honest, even if you take in Moss Lane between it and Hesketh Bank. Talking of which….

Becconsall

No, I didn’t get to photograph Cherry Vale, the street on top of the former station here, because despite leaving Southport at sometime after twelve, it was now pitch dark and raining. A Samsung phone-camera with no zoom and a glaring flash wouldn’t have  been much use, I suspect.

To go back to an earlier concern, let’s talk about pubs. Hesketh Bank and Becconsall, near neighbours to Tarleton, have just two pubs between them, and the population figures of both suggest something around 5,000 people.

Reclaimed from whatever land was considered suitable to build on, the villages of Hesketh Bank, Becconsall and Tarleton resemble comfortable commuter towns, especially from the air, as it’s clear where one main road has been used as the column on which cobwebs of mainly 60s and 70s avenues have been hung. There’s more recent new builds from the 90s housing boom in Tarleton, where a railway used to run around the same time as the West Lancs line, and most recently pre-2008 housing was erected in double-quick time off our old friend the A59. Strictly speaking, Hesketh Bank is the most northern of the three villages, a triangle of housing running off Shore Road (so called because there’s a shore……miles and miles and miles away….), then comes Becconsall where a new Booths has been built to resemble a Norwegian primary school. Finally there’s Tarleton, where there’s some very nice butter pies if you like that sort of thing.

(There’s two pubs in Tarleton – and for all three villages – The Village Inn looks like an airport waiting lounge and doesn’t always look after its ale, whilst the Cock and Bottle has a pub quiz I rarely win and does very good jacket potatoes.)

There’s still a railway here of sorts, I suppose. From near here the West Lancs line’s ghost carries itself over the River Douglas. The Google Eye shows two things to the weary traveller – where the bridge used to be and the distinctive shape of a ‘spur’ running towards the Tarleton branch. It’s now impossible to cross the Douglas by any means other than swimming or a vessel of some kind, so the only options are walking, driving or the good old number 2 bus.

Conclusions

“Sunset at Hundred End”


By 1892, the company which has constructed the West Lancashire Line had been swallowed up before it would have gone bankrupt. By 1897, the Fishergate Hill station in Preston had lost its passengers to goods traffic only. It took until Beeching in the 1960s for the line to be closed for good, but maybe it had been close to death a long time before then. Services to Hundred End, for example, were lost in 1962, with local newspaper reports at the time suggesting passenger numbers had fallen to no more than enough to generate one pound a day. Southport was to grow for passengers from other parts of the county, and become attractive to car and coach travellers who found brash Blackpool a little too rough and ready for their tastes. Whilst Blackpool attracted packed trains to the Golden Mile, Southport was preferring to attract more genteel travellers and the line from industrial Preston wasn’t going to give them much of that.

In the years since Beeching recommended the line to close, a lot has taken over where the line used to be. In Preston, Penwortham, Longton, Hesketh Bank, Banks and Southport, housing and roads cover most of the old path, cars moving in where trains used to run. Around Longton, New Longton and across the Marsh Towns, farms and light industry now sit where the line used to carve through the countryside, and indeed aerial photos show the line still cuts a swathe in places.

Overall, forty years is a long time in human nature, and nothing was going to preserve the line forever after closure. Platforms and bridges may occasionally poke out of hedges and the like, but it’s not surprising that the clues are far and few between (even if, on occasion, I was facing the wrong way….). I’m a huge fan of the railways, and especially promoting access to the rail network for places which sit achingly close to existing lines. This route is different, though, and obviously so. There’s no chance that trains could ever return here, leaving only photographs and hints poking through nature as the only remnants of what used to be. It’s unfortunate and wrong that access to the railways has been snatched from so many people, but realistically the line would have only attracted maybe 30,000 or 40,000 people at the absolute highest today, by far too few to justify keeping services running. Penwortham is now well served by dozens of buses every hour, and regular bus services run through the Marsh Towns at least every 30 minutes. Beeching went too far, too fast (to coin a phrase). Maybe he wasn’t always wrong, though.

Walking West Lancs (Part 1)

Preston and Southport are approximately 16 miles apart, a greater distance than the width of Greater Manchester at its widest point, so of course transport between the two is only marginally better than that which exists between Kirkwall and Cowes. Most folk venture along the A59, which gets blocked around Penwortham for the school run and continues as Lancashire’s longest traffic-jam until the 5pm commute chugs along in the opposite direction.

Between the two used to run the West Lancashire railway, connecting an outer bit of the latter with an outer bit of the former. Most Prestonians probably don’t realise that the West Lancashire railway ran not to the main railway station on Butler Street, but to a smaller station at the bottom of Fishergate Hill.

This smaller station was closed off to passengers in the year 1900, though it was only until Guild Year 1972 when the station was finally abandoned for all uses, being demolished four years later. Services from Southport to Preston via the West Lancashire Line were cut in 1964, with the Beeching Axe immediately followed by the track, bridges, and station buildings demolished before the year was out. It was this search for what infrastructure might remain forty-eight years after closure which persuaded me to take a walk along the route

Not only did my shoes take a bashing, it became very clear, very quickly, that the intervening 48 years have not been kind to any signs of what might have once carried passengers and food across the Lancashire Marsh Towns. My trusty well-thumbed road atlas proved to be only half-way decent to getting the best out of the walk, and in any case the route has long since been taken over by housing, farmers and business-parks, so walking the exact route was a non-starter. My aim, therefore, was to venture as close to the line as possible to find the location of each West Lancashire Station.

(An aim which caused a friend and his father to double, triple and quadruple check that I hadn’t gone completely off my trolley)

The two parts of the journey divide the walk into halves – Preston to the River Douglas, and then the Douglas to Southport.

Preston (Fishergate Hill)

No trains leaving here


Now a GP surgery – and one which was under threat from closure – the site of Preston’s short-lived West Lancashire railway station shows no indication of its former life. Indeed whilst Google Maps is pretty good at showing the footprint of former industry there’s not much on the ground to indicate where the railway used to run.

The homes around this part of Preston are a mix of Victorian and Georgian houses of considerable size and value, some of which are owned by families whilst others have been converted for houseshares and students. There’s a new-build apartment development here now, too, minimalist apartments with thin walls and external letter boxes as per. Separating Broadgate from Riverside is dog-walking greenery which was once the West Lancs line, though its distinctive shape can only be appreciated as such from the air; at street level it’s two barely covered footpaths twisting and turning through trees allowed to grow where the railway used to be. Follow the line across the Ribble and you’ll see the distinctive stone columns which used to carry the line to Penwortham. This leads across to “The Penwortham Triangle”, now partly converted as a cycle-path and “natural history trail” (“we’ve neglected this for years and now claim the weeds, wildflowers and damaged seating offer a rustic charm”). As you might expect, the trackbed has been reclaimed by nature in all its forms – trees of various shapes, widths and girths, bushes, bracken and assorted suchlikes.

Cop Lane (Penwortham)

“Penwortham” on your address can mean the difference between “your house is a decent investment” and “your house is a reasonable price.” It’s the largest town council in England, and is best described as being split between Higher Penwortham (comfy suburbia, 80s/90s housing boom new build on rabbit warren estates, gravel drives, boutiques amongst the Co-op and Spar), and Lower Penwortham (post-war housing sprawl, terraced streets, chippy, Booze Brothers).

Carrying the West Lancs over the Ribble
Down this way, magic happens. Well, Penwortham
The cyclepath which takes me to the site of Cop Lane station runs parallel to the embankment and track-bed of the West Lancs line, scrambling up to which is a strife not worth taking (i.e., it was muddy and it really is very, very steep).  There’s not actually much to see here other than the allotments on one side and the embankment on the other, with one public footpath running north/south towards a residential estate bordered by the distinctive shell of what would have been a bridge.

Walk, don’t run. Or cycle. But don’t run.

One long stroll and crossing of “Golden Way” later, I’m on Cop Lane, where the station and all signs of it have been long since obliterated underneath the carriageways. As Beeching predicted would happen at the time, buses now run in every direction at regular intervals, to and from Preston in a loop and at the far end of the road Stagecoach services to Southport along the A59. As the lazy part of me wouldn’t mind following this A-road to New Longton, the ‘rules’ I’m making up as I go along mean my route has to take as close a line as possible to the original route, so away from the A-road I go to the back-streets and rural parts.

New Longton (and Hutton)

Creeping around bins. Nice.

Not in shot – man wearing novelty bow-tie

Opened originally as “Howick” and “Hutton and Howick”, the station at New Longton got another name change not long before its destruction. The walk I take as close to the line of the railway shows homes replaced by farm-houses, and the distinct smell of manure following the numerous tractors driving around in all directions. With the built-up commuter towns behind me, the difference is marked and immediate, as this is the start of the journey into West Lancashire’s main economy source – cabbages, and a lot of them.

New Longton is far more of a enlarged Middle England suburbia than it used to be, with the large homes looking out towards fields giving way to rabbit warren estates and post-war sprawl. I spot, easily enough, “Station Cottage”, the level-crossing keeper’s place of residence until the line was closed in the 1960s, and on the way there I am served at the Post Office by a man wearing a novelty bow-tie, lights flashing in sequence. They tend to have these sorts of people in villages.

Windsor Avenue, at the bottom of which would
have been the line on its approach into Longton.
Aerial maps show the end of the street abutting the track bed.

It’s not possible for me to stomp across the fields to get to the line of the railway, not least because of the housing in the way, so I have to follow the streets onto the next station at Longton itself. Which takes me almost to the end of the first stage, but not before spotting the distinctive Catholic Church, and before that…

Nursery Lane, between New Longton and Longton Bridge, at the
mid-point of which ran the station. It’s now the kind of
house which must have only been built through lottery winnings.

Longton Bridge

…crossing the A59 by taking a deep breath and just going for it. No traffic lights here, you see, just a fence with a gap in the middle.  The further I go along Chapel Lane, the wider the gap between me and the line, which is now running at a slight curve away from Longton “proper”. This is one of those “cause and effect” questions – has Longton always been destined to grow away from the location of its railway station or did it happen that way when the line was closed?

Certainly Longton exists in far greater area and population off Chapel Lane than it does where the line and station used to be, with a row of shops and pubs on both sides of the A59. What does still exist at what was Longton Bridge is the vast stone walls which used to carry the line over the road, with a new housing estate “Bentley Park” covering the station site itself.

Chapel Lane in the sunshine, a very distinctive place
of worship along the route for the weary traveller

Hoole

Longton Bridge station was on this side
of the road

The final station on my wander around looking for any remaining clues of the West Lancs Line is the first of the genuinely remote rural outposts, which requires a long walk along what is still called “Station Road”, although there’s very few remnants of this nowadays.



My walk has to follow the line as far as possible, though in this case, it’s not easy to do so, and I find myself following the bus route through near-by Walmer Bridge. Here’s a population centre which looks like a crossbow running off the main A-road, with both of its pubs now closed. Whilst it might have been sensible to name the station as “Walmer Bridge”, it is after the local parish of Hoole (“shed”) from which it took its name.

I notice that there are fences and rubble here which might suggest the remote location has saved more than most others, though only the fences are actually of the time, with the level crossing fences the most obvious. Not quite so obvious a clue to the nature of Hoole is the gin bottle I find nestled in the hedgerow.

Site of the old line and station

Gin Bottle, in Hedge

Conclusions

I take the number 2 bus back home, which meanders through and around all the places which used to have a train station. As has always been the case, the bus stops and starts at almost every bus stop, with people of all ages using it to get into Preston. If Beeching had designed his consolidation process with a view to promote bus travel, then at least here it’s worked.

It’s notable that the greatest sign of the line which used to be here remains in greater clarity though Google Maps rather than on the ground. If Penwortham is anything, it’s a town in need of access to the rail network, and that’s now impossible to ever achieve. Whilst car and bus travel continue to clog up the arteries, the short-termism of Beeching is shown up for the daftness it was. Rail enthusiasts might get nostalgic about reopening lines, though there should be some realism these days. Hoole, for example, is unlikely to justify Network Rail’s business case criteria, even if nearby students to Hutton Grammar and coppers from Lancashire police HQ were included.

Stagecoach probably do very well running three – count them – bus services along the Southport route, visiting all the places where stations used to be, although like my walk, the route is somewhat extended, takes longer in time and costs far more to complete. At its height, the route would enable passengers to travel to Blackburn without changing trains. To make the same train journey now from Southport requires changing at Bolton, or changing at Wigan and then Bolton, or maybe Burscough and Preston. With the advance in years, some steps have been quite clearly backwards.

The next stage of my journey takes me from the River Douglas to Southport….

all change with Tories and trains

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.

all change, please

Many moons ago, my blog about the railways drew very strident conclusions from broad-brush assumptions. Hey, it’s a blog, and that’s not exactly uncommon.

My default position has always been largely in favour of competition and private investment in the railway industry – since John Major’s government pushed through the Railways Act, there has been a notable and undeniable increase in investment for rolling stock, track repairs and new stations. Commuters on the rat-race to their office-spaces may still be cramped in their carriages, but it’s against the backdrop of record customer numbers overall, healthy profits for all those from management level up, and occasional splurges in engineering work and stock renewals across the country. British Rail was not utterly useless; neither did it cost the taxpayer so much money as the fragmented privatised industry we endure today.

This is not a complete U-turn. Maybe a slight reverse; the fabric on which the initial privatisation model was sewn clearly put the long-term health of profits over the long-term needs of passengers. Today, the TOCs which do least are rewarded most: highest fares, highest subsidies, lowest customer satisfaction. And yes, “customer”, having long since stopped being “passengers”.

I’m a lifelong fan of the railways – young frequent user for wanderings and now older commute to work type. Those weekends I choose for groundhopping and the like rely on trains taking the strain (or in the case of the away trip to Howden, trains and buses and Metros, though that relaly is another story). Consequentially, bemused doesn’t cover my reaction to news that fares will increase again for most passengers, especially the increasingly rare ‘walk-on’ customer. Neither Labour government, nor Coalition today, dare tackle the £4billion cost of keeping the railways running. Phillip Hammond, current Transport minister, struggles to maintain any kind of credibility with his “investing in the future” drivel; when Northern Rail’s faithful are forced onto 1984 spine-shakers for the want of any kind of investment in the future, every additional four-quid on fares a week is keenly felt. Labour are going on record with their “too far, too fast” cuts agenda rubbish. I’m taking no lessons in pious hand-wringing from the Party which pretended to put aside £500 million for station improvements which didn’t exist.

Little wonder the age of the “walk-on” passenger is all but gone. Like the airways before them, TOCs now see no profit (and therefore, no point) in attracting people who can’t afford to book tickets in advance. Romantic ideas of a modern railway fit for all, affordable to many, seem depressingly delayed. Presumed, cancelled. Wrong kind of governance.

Whilst train companies enjoy bumper profits, massive salaries, and huge packets of money from the taxpayer, the other big ticket item in the news rolls silently off the running sheet and down the agenda. England’s riots will cost a mere £100m to repair. The quantifiable cost of the troubles is one serious hit – the cost to peoples lives is anyone’s guess.

This makes the effect on peoples attitudes all the more important to gauge. So why are politicians goading judges into showboat sentencing? Is it important for the United Kingdom to have prisoners whose crimes would barely trouble Iran’s religious elite? Using the Serious Crime Act to throw in gaol the organiser of a water-fight? Or the Facebook users whose arranged gathering may not have existed? For four years?

If Theresa May – whose stock is now falling rapidly – has any kind of legitimacy, she would tip-toe back into the Home Office for some serious one-woman-against-one-keyboard interaction time. Area-wide curfew? Increased powers of arrest? Of detention? I thought all this had been done away with, after the great LibDem successes against IT cards and the DNA database.

What the apolitical riots represented was the desire to break away from relentless police-state mentality – Labour’s stock in trade. More CCTV! More PSCOs! No hanging around in groups of 3 in the light of the chippy window, SCARPER! To increase and tighten police presence in assumed known trouble spots will only make those sick of society even less willing to co-operate. May has made the same mistake every authoritarian predecessor would receive the warmest applause. She is failing to remember the difficulties inside the most tricky department. Fighting disenfranchised youths with thousands more police officers hanging around makes me – us all – feel far less comfortable, far less safe.

Both the ‘talking points’ down the Crickerer’s Arms – the railways and police reform – centre eventually to the persons view on their own Englishness. As a rule, we don’t complain. Unless, of course, our tolerance and patience were to suddenly snap over the injustices on both sides of these commonly discussed controversies. Let us not be priced out of our own public transport (would that it were, etc.). Let us not exchange the British way of consensus policing for the unjust politicised State Uniformed Brigades of our closest European neighbours. “The French take their police’s behaviour and attitude as a given,” said one man on the radio over the weekend. “Britain has always enjoyed a public face to their coppers.”

Indeed so – but let us not forget the issues with cost, with caution, with due process. The railways cannot justify big-ticker, Beeching-creep, small lines closed when the profits don’t add. Let’s not allow May to introduce the kind of civil liberty hate so enjoyed by the increasingly right-wing Blairite sect

Tomorrow, I will walk to work, the full 6 miles, as I have been doing knowing that my monthly wage is taxed out of all reason every day, and that it’s still possible for our politicians to see just the wooded area of ‘headline justice”. Oh for a platform alteration there…

HS2

The Coalition have confirmed the route of HS2, the High-Speed rail route which will drag the UK into the 21st Century [ish] with upgrades to the national rail system which still places us behind European and especially far-Eastern comporable countries in terms of public transport provision. I don’t believe our railways are falling apart – and I say this as a weary Northern Rail commuter – but the drag-heels approach to funding and modernisation is incredibly frustrating. That HS2 will bring rapid rail only to the Midlands and London in a long-term timeframe (the year 2015 to start work seems highly improbable) avoids the question of how Northern and Western England will connect to this ‘capital’ project.

Many questions have dealt with the political aspect of HS2, not least alleged concessions to people living near to the proposed route who may vote Conservative. Disquiet has been reported by those living in the Chilterns who have found their opposition to the route largely ignored.

By way of some alternative point of reference, I asked over on VOTE-UK (a fine website I recommend for all political junkies), to confirm which parliamentary constituencies would be visted by HS2. And an answer there came quickly…

(Colour coding should be obvious…and no, I don’t know how to tables in HTML)

==In Greater London==
Holborn and St Pancras
Hampstead and Kilburn
Westminster North
Kensington
Hammersmith
Brent Central
Ealing Central and Acton
Ealing North
Uxbridge and South Ruislip
Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner

==Outside Greater London==
Beaconsfield
Chesham and Amersham
Aylesbury
Buckingham [Seat of the Speaker, John Bercow]
Banbury
South Northamptonshire
Kenilworth and Southam
Meriden
North Warwickshire
Tamworth
Lichfield

==Into Birmingham==

Sutton Coldfield
Birmingham Erdington
Birmingham Hodge Hill
Birmingham Ladywood

Nationalisation won’t get us back on track.

£1.8bn is the most recent figure for central Government spending on the railways. With the next Conservative government likely to have this as the very maximum they’d be willing to spend – and even that is a stretch – the future has not been this bleak for Britain’s rail infrastructure for generations.

In Scotland, the link to Glasgow Airport has been sacrificed by the SNP administration attempting to balance its books; Manchester’s Metrolink extension to its Airport is likely to be mothballed too. London’s Crossrail is a reality likely to remain, not least because of the Olympic Games in 2012, with the rest of the nation sitting on so many promises and long-ago given up dreams of being linked to the rail network.

I am not against long-term projects such as the High Speed project linking the North of England with London so quickly office workers could commute on a daily basis without losing sleep. Nor am I naive enough to demand massive expansion without consequence, although how many people must realise that the Beeching Axe did for economic and environmental policy long before many of today’s MPs were born? How different this country would be – how closer to our climate change ambitions – had the crisscross of railway lines slaughtered by Beeching allowed to remain.

Nationalisation is not the answer to our railway woes. Those on the Left who demand the return to public ownership are blinded by ideology. Some private companies may have bailed out – Connex, National Express – but the expansion of the network which has occurred, improvements to stations which has happened, the vast improvement in punctuality across all regions, would be unthinkable and grossly over-costed in the hands of Government. I do not want to return to slow, shoddy, slam-door British Rail trains, even though my daily commute often means 1980s Merseyrail brain-shakers into Bamber Bridge. Northern Rail is showing far more ambition than Regional Railways ever did.

The £1bn kitty for railways after 2010 will not be used with much abandon. It will have to be centred on what will be guaranteed to return the best value. But the railways are showing all the signs of short-term politics from both Labour and Conservative governments. Neither saw beyond each election day in terms of ambition for the rail network. More stations, more lines – all needed for the long-term good in addition to such massive projects as “High Speed II”.

We show the scars on our little island of our reliance on road expansion at the expense of railway funding. The future should have started years ago on making the trains run on time. From 2010 the question of railway investment may be too important to avoid.