Bring back Postbuses

A postbus meeting the train at Chathill in the late 1970s, when the County Council was trying to implement transport integration to benefit rural parts of the county and the Post Office was a willing partner.
A postbus meeting the train at Chathill in the late 1970s, when the County Council was trying to implement transport integration to benefit rural parts of the county and the Post Office was a willing partner.

The transport news this month is like the curate’s egg – good in parts. The bad news was reported in this paper a fortnight ago, that the local rail services from Berwick to Edinburgh will not begin in December 2016 as previously thought, but will be deferred until 2018.

This is apparently due to ‘shortage of stock’, but this is unlikely to be the real reason because it will only take one train to provide the two-hourly frequency. What they really mean is ‘shortage of the right sort of train’.

My belief is that the real reason is that the timings have had to be tightened up to fit in between the fast trains to the point where the existing Scotrail electric trains’ top speed would be inadequate. Between Edinburgh and Dunbar, with the succession of local stations, acceleration is more important than top speed, but between Dunbar and Berwick, with only one stop at Reston, top speed becomes more important. The new trains for the Edinburgh to Glasgow electrification will meet the need, but will not be available until 2018.

The good news is that the two-hourly frequency on Mondays to Saturdays will start with the 0741 from Berwick until the last train at 2344. From Edinburgh the first train will be at 0631 and last at 2233. On Sundays the frequency will be three-hourly, starting two hours later and finishing two hours earlier than on weekdays.

Our hopes that these services might be extended southwards to Newcastle have been dashed, but replaced by the good news that bidders for the new Trans-Pennine franchise from April 2016 are invited to consider extending the Liverpool and Manchester to Newcastle services to Edinburgh.

With a starting date only a year away, it is too late for public consultation on the stopping pattern north of Newcastle, but it is seems likely that this will reflect the pattern south of Newcastle, and we might reasonably hope for the long-awaited restoration of rail services linking local stations such as Morpeth, Widdrington, Alnmouth and Chathill.

A good case could be made for other calls to be included provided some effort is made to provide bus or semi-taxi services to places nearby, such as the new hospital to be sited at Cramlington, and the prison at Acklington.

This makes the restoration of Belford station a matter of the greatest urgency. The need for the twice-daily local commuter services to be able to pick up and set down has been recognised for about 15 years, but still has not happened. There has been so little local pressure for it that the County Council simply ‘forgot’ to put it into its quinquennial Transport Plan about ten years ago. There has been a ridiculous suggestion that there should be a ‘one-door’ platform in the siding where the local train reverses, whereas what is needed is a proper wayside station on the main lines.

Network Rail has developed a standard ‘pre-fab’ design for such a station which can be produced comparatively cheaply, but with such a sorry tale of prevarication it seems unlikely that success is going to be achieved any time soon.

This is a good point to raise the age-old question of transport integration as passengers understand it. The Borders and Northumberland County councils made considerable efforts to have bus services re-routed to serve Berwick and other stations in Northumberland. However, similar efforts to co-ordinate timings have been found to be impracticable. The operational reasons for this are unfortunately too complicated to be explained in this column.

Compared with some parts of the country, we have retained more buses than many similar rural areas. However, the government squeeze on local authorities’ budgets continues to make it difficult to provide services which are not commercial but are nevertheless important to rural communities.

Postbuses were a really useful initiative some years ago. A pilot scheme was run to test the idea, one being from Dunbar to Innerwick. As a result, they spread throughout Britain, but Royal Mail has reduced the number still running to a handful in Scotland and just two in England. Perhaps it is time for rural communities to put pressure onto Royal Mail to reinstate some of them.

John Wylde is the author of ‘Integrated Transport – a Will-o’-the-wisp?’ (HYPERLINK “http://www.john-wylde.co.uk/” www.john-wylde.co.uk). This book, priced at £14.95, is available to readers for £11.95 post paid and signed by the author. Also ‘Experiments in Public Transport Operation’, normally £11.95, available to readers for £9.95. Order from the Berwick Advertiser office.