New era of the train: UK puts stations back on track
David Harrison was still shaking his mother’s hand the last time passenger trains drove past his house, spitting clouds of smoke towards the south coast of England. He wasn’t even a teenager when the service shut down on a savage cost-cutting program.
He now has silver hair, but Mr Harrison, a local politician, is on the verge of a famous victory to finally bring the trains back. After an absence of more than 50 years, authorities are drawing up plans to restart passenger service on the 10-kilometer line serving communities left behind by the UK transport revolution.
Mr Harrison’s campaign to reopen the Waterside Line in Hampshire, southern England, is only a small part of a larger shift in UK transport policy.
The government has championed the return of rail services as part of its ‘leveling up’ program, designed to improve the wealth of communities outside London where poor transport links have affected investment and forced people to depend. from their car.
The massive car ownership that sparked the line’s demise near Mr Harrison’s home has been replaced by frustrations over congestion and pollution. The political pendulum has shifted and a number of shelved roads are being considered for possible reopening after decades of neglect.
The steam trains are gone, but Mr Harrison’s ambition is to secure the UK’s first environmentally friendly hydrogen train service for the Totton service on the outskirts of the port city of Southampton, to Fawley. But after a 55-year absence, diesel trains will do the trick for now.
His optimism is driven by a renewed enthusiasm for rail, with record numbers of passengers, and a major reorganization of the overcrowded and widely derided privatized rail system.
“The circle has come full circle,” said Harrison, 64. “We have come to a situation where we have reached a saturation point for cars and we have problems with air quality, congestion and parking spaces.
“I think the government has come to the idea that it actually makes sense to use public transport, especially where existing infrastructure is in place.”
From the creation of steam trains to the expansion of his empire by building railroads, Britain’s state-run domestic services had become a source of national embarrassment by the 1960s. The cult of the car and a growing trucking industry have challenged the supremacy of rail.
Brought in to deal with losses of £ 100million ($ 141.9million) per year, engineer Richard Beeching produced a foundational report in 1963 which called for the closure of dozens of loss-making lines, 5,000 miles of tracks and 2,363 stations, representing one third of the total.
The “Beeching Ax” allowed the management of the nationalized network to concentrate on the main arteries between the big cities which carried the most passengers but left the rural communities without stations. Many bus services set up to replace trains withered from lack of use as the British took their cars.
Few policies have had such a lasting impact as Dr Beeching’s brutal cuts, which are still part of the current UK transport debate and were highlighted by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps in a speech last week.
“Transportation is key to taking it to the next level,” Shapps said in a speech to the Policy Exchange think tank. He cited multibillion-pound investment in transport in the north of England since 2010 and the construction of the HS2, a high-speed train project to connect London to northern cities such as Manchester and Leeds via Birmingham.
And, he said, “this is why we are connecting towns deprived of their rail links under the Beeching rail axis.”
Other proposed cuts were rejected in the 1970s, but rail activists say a consensus among parties to restore old rail links is a new phenomenon, as more passengers than ever travel by train.
In 2020, more than 1.74 billion trips were made on national rail services in the UK – double the number at the time of the Beeching cuts, according to data company Statista.
Large housing construction programs in isolated areas have pleaded for the revival of many branch lines, with the UK’s population increasing from 54 million in 1963 to nearly 67 million in 2021. On the line proposed by Mr. Harrison, a 1,500 home and retail project on the site of a former power plant has convinced local planners to end their opposition to the reopening.
“This project is basically a no-brainer,” said Mark Miller, of the Three Rivers Community Rail Partnership, who initiated the project. “It has been kept up to maintenance standards. You just need to renovate a few stations and level crossings and do some signage work.”
But the return of previously shelved leads has been slow. Over the past 50 years, more than 400 stations and 500 road miles have been added to the network, a fraction of the number reduced by Dr Beeching, according to activist group Railfuture.
The group helps local groups to request the reopening of closed lines. “If you want to have successful public transport, it has to be rail,” spokesman Bruce Williamson said. “It’s the only way to get people out of their cars – buses aren’t enough, frankly. “
For many, the recovery is too late, with hypermarkets and offices built on old railway land and the cost of rerouting too high. A government agency wants to concrete ruined railway tunnels and bridges to reduce the cost of their maintenance, says Railfuture.
In some areas, the tracks have been torn up to become cycle lanes – a policy also championed by the UK government as it seeks to polish its green credentials ahead of hosting a major international climate summit later this year.
The old Holmsley Station in the heart of the New Forest, a site of beauty and tourist attraction a 20-minute drive from Totton, was transformed into a cafe a decade after it closed under the Beechings Ax. The trail has been torn up and a busy road now passes the cafe.
“It’s so far away,” owner Paul Jensen said. “You can’t go anywhere, there is no bus service, the walk to the pub is too long. For me, it doesn’t work.
Most of the people who visit now are cyclists who use routes where trains used to run. Some come back out of nostalgia.
“It was a beautiful station back then,” said assistant manager Catharine Adams, 24. “But it ended up being used mainly to pick up kids from school, and she passed out.”
But in some areas, the return of regular rail services can be achieved at relatively low cost. Mr Harrison believes a basic service on the Waterside line could be put in place within five years at a cost of £ 15million.
The line opened in 1925 and the tracks remain in place allowing occasional deliveries of freight to a military port and an oil refinery.
Senior railway officials joined a single passenger service in 2020 on the line – the first in 54 years – to demonstrate the viability of the project.
“If I was Boris Johnson and asked my top officials to consider a quick win, it would clearly be on my top 10 list,” Mr Harrison said. “This is a project that could see the light of day before the end of his mandate.
The UK announced a £ 500million fund last year to develop ideas to reopen closed tracks and stations and urged local groups to apply. Twenty-five potential projects have been approved to date, including the Waterside line.
Mr Williamson said Railfuture was “cautiously optimistic” about developments, but said £ 500million would not go far. “What’s interesting is the way the political wind is blowing to overthrow Beeching – before that would have been unthinkable, but now it’s a popular rallying cry.
“But the person who lives in a city that had a station that was shut down can have a long wait to get their railroad back.”
The return of some branch lines is part of the latest overhaul of a network that was privatized in the 1990s in an attempt to address persistent complaints about dirty and unreliable trains.
After years of complaints about poor and fragmented service, the system was fatally damaged by a chaotic change in train schedules in 2018, which resulted in cancellations and delays. The drop in income caused by Covid-19 dealt the final blow.
The UK announced last month a return to a centralized system run by a new body, Great British Railways, to replace the botched experience of three decades of privatization, but that stops long before nationalization. He will set timetables and prices, sell tickets in England and manage the rail infrastructure.
If Mr Harrison succeeds, the infrastructure will include upgrading the dilapidated Marchwood station on its Waterside Line and the old-looking rail signals outside the station.
“One of my earliest memories is walking across a catwalk holding my mother’s hand and seeing steam and smoke rising all around me and I was absolutely terrified.
“They weren’t the cleanest things. But I have a passion for trains in general. I think they are just a wonderful option.