What’s the point of a railway?

24 July 2012
Railway line next to motorway

‘Oh, Dr Beeching what have you done? There once were lots of trains to catch, but soon there will be none, I'll have to buy a bike, 'cos I can't afford a car.’ Is it time to return to basics asks Ralph Adam?

Britain pioneered railway engineering, developing much of the world’s rail infrastructure and its motive power. The earliest trains carried coal but it was not long before conflicts arose between goods and passenger services.

From the beginning, Britain’s railways have struggled against objectors: landowners resisted giving up territory for line construction, while city-dwellers resented the proximity of this alien transport form; a view reflected in the attitudes of objectors to the proposed High Speed 2. Not surprisingly, many stations were distant from the places they served. Beeching’s 1963 report ‘The Reshaping of British Railways’ called for the closure of a third of all stations, resulting in the withdrawal of passenger services from 5000 route miles (some lines were to be developed for freight). Later, in the 1980s, the theme was to convert main lines into motorways.

The number of passenger rail journeys is steadily increasing, though trains still make up only about 8 per cent of all travel, with London handling the bulk. Freight accounts for little more than 10 per cent of operations. The Rail Freight Association claims rail is the only sustainable means of managing demand for imported containerised goods: it increases efficiency for manufacturers, retailers and the bulk trades, reduces road traffic and provides huge carbon savings, they say.

Britain’s biggest freight-operator, Deutsche Bahn-owned DB Schenker, has recently tested High Speed 1, the line linking the Channel Tunnel with the British network. This route has the benefit, not only of achieving higher speeds, but, more importantly, that it is built to the wider continental loading-gauge allowing for through-running of trains from much of Europe. The Great Central Railway which linked London with the Midlands and Manchester, until most of it was closed under the Beeching plan, was also designed to carry Continental traffic and, if it still existed, might have obviated the need for High Speed 2.

There is more to make freight operators optimistic about the future. Major rail-linked container terminals, such as Teesport and the London Gateway, are being developed; while HS2 is expected to free paths for goods trains on other main routes. Freight operators tend to minimise the importance of scheduling, operational and infrastructure issues. They are, however, concerned that the recently-announced devolution of Network Rail’s infrastructure may give passenger trains priority; for example, when diversions are in operation, and that little-used passenger services will block paths on key freight lines. A case in point is Felixstowe, where the container terminals are being expanded, but access is through a single-track line which would be prohibitively expensive to double. The port’s owners recommend transferring off-peak passenger services to road transport as a ‘greener’ option for reducing delays to goods trains.

However, what does 'green' mean in rail terms? Are heavy high-speed services worth the investment? Are trains really an effective way to move people? Which, when the efficient transport of goods is crucial, should have priority, freight or passengers? Perhaps it is time to return to basics and re-think the purpose of railways.

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