Dennis Fancett has been waiting for a train at his local railway station at Bedlington, Northumberland, since 2005 — and if all goes to plan it may arrive three years from now.
Fifteen years of effort by campaigners, planners and local politicians will reach a pivotal moment next month, when the government decides whether to grant the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line £99.5m towards the £125m first phase costs of reopening the line for passenger trains. The final estimated cost is £162m.
Throughout the country, campaigners want passenger services restored to railway lines like this one, axed in the 1960s by then British Railways chief Dr Richard Beeching. His cuts ended public use of a third of Britain’s rail network, closing more than 2,300 stations and around 5,000 miles of track.
Reversing Beeching cuts now has top-level political priority; it chimes with Boris Johnson’s pledge that it will invest in “left behind” communities to level up the UK economy. It has special resonance in so-called “red wall” northern seats snatched by the Tories from Labour in December’s general election.
Even before Mr Johnson’s promise to plough more money into big infrastructure and transport projects, the plan to reopen the line for passengers at Ashington in England’s north east enjoyed strong public and local authority support. Reviving the track for passenger trains — it is already regularly used for freight — would reconnect depressed former coalfield communities with Newcastle and the national rail network.
“This should be the easiest reopening of the entire country because all the tracks are here,” said Mr Fancett.
But line reopenings are complex. Northumberland county council’s 160-page outline business case, the culmination of ten years’ work, includes 11 appendices. One runs to 7,164 pages. “If we can’t do this, there’s not much hope for elsewhere,” said Mr Fancett, chairman of the South East Northumberland Rail User Group. “We have to simplify the process.”
A £500m pot to help restart the Beeching lines was a Conservative election campaign promise last year. Launching the £500m fund last month, transport secretary Grant Shapps said reopenings should happen within this parliament’s lifetime — a mere five years. The Department for Transport confirmed half the money is new and the rest “reprofiled” from Network Rail funding.
Rail travel in Britain is enjoying popularity unseen since Victorian times, when many of the axed routes were built. Passenger numbers on the Ebbw Vale line in south Wales and the Borders Rail route in Scotland, both Beeching reversals opened in the past 10 years, have far exceeded forecasts.
Reopening lines has environmental appeal, cutting vehicle emissions and congestion., experts said. However, Darren Shirley, chief executive of The Campaign for Better Transport, a sustainable transport charity, said: “The process is onerous, difficult and expensive. It can take decades to get some of these schemes going.”
But Network Rail said common issues, even when converting freight lines to passenger use, include new stations, platforms, car parks, signalling and track rebuilding to create the higher quality infrastructure needed for passenger trains, rather than slow moving freight traffic.
Reopenings also require feasibility studies, design, land acquisition, funding and, sometimes, public inquiries, the state owned rail infrastructure operator added. “Our experience — as can be seen by Crossrail, HS1, HS2 — is that even if there is substantial ‘high level’ and political support, the planning and approvals process is long and complicated,” Network Rail said.
Then there is cost. The Campaign for Better Transport estimates it costs between £9m and £16.7m to reopen each mile of disused track. It has identified 224 potential reopening projects around Britain but some lines have been partly blocked by development, including housing, or have become walking and cycling routes. Land ownership may have changed too.
The campaign group has highlighted 33 potential priority reopenings for passengers which, it believes, could bring the biggest benefits between now and 2035. It estimates such a move could generate up to 20m additional passenger journeys, create 6,500 jobs and bring 500,000 people within walking distance of a station. Some of the routes currently carry freight. It estimates total reopening cost at £4.76bn — £6.39bn.
Against such costs, some railway campaigners, unions and politicians have derided the government’s £500m. “The funding pledged by the government would reopen just 25 miles of railway,” said Labour’s shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald. “Investing in the railway is meaningless without a serious funding commitment of billions of pounds.”
In response, the DFT said the £500m is “just the start” to encourage communities to pitch reopening proposals, help kick-start projects and accelerate delivery of schemes. From this pot, it has allocated £1.5m to the Ashington, Blyth & Tyne project.
At the other end of the country, in Somerset, Dave Chillistone, a member of the Portishead Railway Group, is very hopeful their £116m 10-mile scheme, going through the planning consent process, will happen. He advised communities wanting to propose reopenings not to focus on nostalgia but today’s commercial realities. “It’s the difference between need and wish,” he said.