Full steam ahead for local lines

Reviving branches of the railways closed decades ago could boost local economies and persuade people out of cars, train operators claim. Sarah Arnott reports
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It sounds like a crazy idea. After all, in the past few months, several train operators have gone to the Government begging to be let off their licence fees because passenger numbers are falling, taking revenues with them. Yet the Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc) is now calling for £300m of investment to build nine new branch lines, and possibly new stations as well.

However, today's troubled franchises and tomorrow's infrastructure requirements are not linked, according to Chris Austin, the author of the Atoc report. "The expectation has to be that the economy will recover and that the huge upward momentum in transportation, and particularly rail, will resume," Mr Austin said. "This is about looking to the future."

Notwithstanding recessionary pressures, particularly on commuter traffic into London, more people travelled on Britain's trains last year than at any other time except during the Second World War. Not only that, but the rail network carries 30 per cent more passengers than it did 46 years ago when Dr Richard Beeching, the physicist and engineer who had been appointed as the first chairman of British Railways in 1961, took an axe to the system, cutting more than 4,000 miles of track, to be followed by another 2,000 miles that were lost by the end of the decade.

The time has come to turn the Beeching plan on its head, says Atoc. The organisation's research into towns with a population of 15,000 or more with no rail connection resulted in a list of nine locations where investment in a new line produces a cost/benefit ratio of more than 1:1.5, the Government's bar for investment. In some places, it would be a case of reopening old tracks, in some of upgrading existing freight lines, and in others of laying entirely new infrastructure.

Top of the list is Hythe in Hampshire, which with an investment of just £3m offers a cost/benefit ratio of 1:4.8. Other frontrunners are Brixham in Devon, Bordon in Hampshire and Fleetwood in Lancashire. There are another five borderline cases that Atoc recommends for further scrutiny, where the investment decision could be tipped by economic regeneration or employment benefits, and seven places where Atoc believes new stations are justified on existing lines, including Rushden, Peterlee and Kenilworth.

"The purpose of this is to get people talking," Mr Austin said. "It is not a blueprint of our priority schemes, we are just saying that these places have come out well in our evaluation and it is time to start talking about that in the context of the forward planning and budgeting by government, local authorities, regional development agencies and private developers."

However, while Atoc is involved in the discussions about setting the UK's catchily titled "route utilisation strategy" – along with Network Rail, central and local governments – it is the taxpayer that will fund any new infrastructure.

Branch lines are a peculiarly British obsession, and their demise captured the public imagination. "Beeching's Axe" was mourned as the end of an era: the rushing, faceless modernity of the motorway replacing slower, more intimate travel on a local train.

The latest proposals, however, are not an homage to nostalgia. Atoc's proposal to reverse some of Dr Beeching's cuts also make a decent economic case. The theory behind the 1960s plan was to close under-used branch lines, forcing people to drive to railheads further up the line and so concentrating traffic on profitable services. In fact, as it turned out, would-be travellers simply took to their cars for the whole journey, draining the main network of passengers even further.

New branch lines would turn things around, suggests Atoc. Road congestion, parking problems and environmental pollution from cars would be eased. Future housing development plans and economic regeneration could also be boosted by judicious rail investment. A consortium of local authorities providing the basis for an inter-urban link from Reading and Oxford to Milton Keynes and Peterborough, for example, would provide for the major housing and two eco-towns proposed for the area, says Atoc.

The sums of money involved are, for the rail sector, not huge – an estimated £308m in total for the top nine new lines, including track, signalling and stations. Network Rail is already committed to £34bn-worth of investment over the next five years, including £8bn to be spent boosting capacity, £11.5bn on replacing ageing infrastructure and £9.2bn on day-to-day maintenance. The Atoc proposals are designed to inform the discussion about the next investment period, from 2014 to 2019. Passengers groups responded warmly to the plans yesterday. "The rail industry's efforts to investigate opportunities to build and expand the network is good news," said Anthony Smith, chief executive of Passenger Focus. "It shows that the industry has recognised that the railway is getting busier and demand is only going to increase. The industry must now find funding if any of these ideas are to become a reality."

Funding, of course, is the clincher – and the response from the Government was not particularly encouraging. Chris Mole, the Transport minister, said: "The Government's priority is to implement measures that will benefit passengers now, such as increased capacity. However, we will support local authorities who decide that improving links to the rail network is a priority for them."

Whatever the hopes for future demand, today's train operators are squealing with pain. The current franchise model sees train companies pay a premium based on projected passenger volumes in return for a licence to run services on a given route. There are high-profile problems, and a number of companies are now pleading with the Government to renegotiate. National Express's East Coast line is one of the worst-affected, but Stagecoach and FirstGroup franchises have also had difficulties.

Given such a backdrop, industry-watchers question the politics of Atoc's report. "Business cases are nonsenses that can be skewed whichever way you want depending on how you want to estimate passenger numbers, time savings and so on," Christian Wolmar, an independent expert, said. "It is a clever tactic for Atoc to pursue this now, when the franchises are struggling, because the rail companies want to show that they are thinking ahead. But it will not come to anything because it is the Government and, through Network Rail, the taxpayer that will actually have to make the investment."