The announcement today by the Conservative Party of a manifesto pledge to spend £500m on reopening former railway lines that were closed in the 1960s is an intriguing proposition. At present HS2 has been hogging the limelight when it comes to current news reporting on railway issues. Positive investment in growing the UK railway network with incremental (re)instatement of lines connecting towns and areas back onto the railway is naturally welcome. But how far would £500m literally go?
A good recent example of a railway reopening was the Borders Railway in 2015 that saw the 50 kilometre line from Edinburgh to Tweedbank reinstated at a cost of £353m. The line has been a victim of its own success with overcrowding a constant feature for a route that originally had a weak business case but rapidly proved its worth. In its first year alone, passenger numbers were 40% higher than forecast putting real strain on the infrastructure that had been descoped from the original ambitions with predominantly single track line placing significant constraints on railway operations. Critically though, the ambition and forecasts for the railway underplayed the real tangible benefits that the railway has brought to the region.
So what does that tell us? Firstly, £500m does not buy a lot of reinstated railway unfortunately. Railway infrastructure is expensive but the social, economic and environmental benefits are hugely significant. Secondly, turning the discussion around, given the scale of benefits then why only £500m given the transformational benefits that could be achieved? The Campaign for Better Transport recently published a report setting out a list of 33 Priority 1 schemes for reopening railway lines equating to 340 miles of railway (new or upgraded) and 70 new (or reopened) stations. The projected cost for these rail reopenings was projected to be in the range of £4.74bn to £6.37bn but this cost would be paid back in 20 to 40 years on the business case.
The value of the railway to a community is significant – the connectivity it brings, the alternative transport option moving traffic (both passengers and goods) away from roads, the economic opportunities as well as the benefits to the environment. So we should welcome a political focus on this subject but perhaps set the challenge back – why only £500m and show us how you plan to make this happen as quickly as possible.
Alex Burrows, Director of the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE)