The Institute of Economic Affairs has recently raised the subject of converting railways into roads.
This has been a continuing debate since 1955 when a paper was read to the Institute of Civil Engineers which resulted in the formation of the Railway Conversion League.
The League ceased to exist in 1994 on the death of its chairman. This suggests that there was not a great demand for its continued existence. Periodic examination of its proposals resulted in conclusions such as ‘No major developed country in the world has done it, but all have continued to develop railways’. (It must be mentioned that the decline of railways in the USA was due to the development of air travel, not to roads); ‘It is just not practical’, to select just a couple.
It is the last of those comments which is the reality. Conversion of railways into roads is just not practical. Roads take up so much more space than railways. Each ten-coach railway train would have to be replaced by 15 road motor coaches, while each freight train might require twice as many lorries, all requiring drivers whose training would need to be of the same standard as for train drivers. Infrastructure works associated with tunnels, bridges and junctions would be enormous. Massive investment would be required in safety systems, etc, but even so speeds would be much lower than they are with trains.
The traffic carried on the railways which were closed under the Beeching Plan in the 1960s was light – that is why they were closed – and was dispersed onto other railway routes and the existing road network.
British Railways was undergoing traumatic upheaval at the time. Following the depredations of the war, the railways were nationalised in 1948. A Modernisation Plan began in 1955, and when that did not produce instant results (politicians have no patience) the Prime Minister Harold Macmillan appointed Ernest Marples to be Minister of Transport.
If somebody whose business is the construction of roads is appointed to be in charge of transport policy the result would appear to be a foregone conclusion. Marples appointed Dr Beeching, an economist, to produce in 1963 a report on the re-shaping of British Railways, with the loss of nearly half the railway network, a result for which Dr Beeching has carried the blame for the past 50 years.
As Marples himself said, nothing that Beeching recommended could be done without the approval of the Minister.
However, the tide has turned and some of the closures which occurred then are being reversed. The Borders Railway from Edinburgh to Galashiels (Tweedbank) is due to re-open on September 6. Reston station on the East Coast main line is planned to re-open in December 2016 and will be served by Scotrail local trains running between Edinburgh and Berwick. The Scottish Borders is back on the railway map!
Scotland is ahead of the game in Britain, with most of the lines in the central belt being electrified, and inter-city trains to be introduced on the Edinburgh and Glasgow to Aberdeen and Inverness routes. More spacious trains with picture windows are to be used on scenic routes, including the Borders Railway, to take advantage of Scotland’s tourist potential.
England and Wales are starting to catch up. Major electrification schemes are beginning on the Great Western and East Midlands main lines, in the north-west of England centred on Manchester, and the network of lines in the South Wales valleys.
To replace the diesel trains on the main lines, including the East Coast line, hundreds of new electric long-distance trains are to be built near Darlington. In many respects these will be an improvement on the diesel trains they replace. They will be slightly faster, but unfortunately passengers will find them even more cramped and less comfortable, continuing the trend which has been evident in trains since the 1970s.
The trend before that was of continually increasing comfort and quality. The pendulum must surely start to swing back soon, as there are signs that general discontent among passengers will develop into a full-scale rebellion against reductions in comfort as the designers, egged on by the government, try to squeeze in a few more seats.
If people will only make their feelings known strongly enough, there is still just time for some of the worst features of the new trains to be designed out before production starts in earnest.
As a corollary to electrification, signalling systems are being upgraded. These will result in even greater safety, and will permit higher speeds.
The investment in planned improvements to the existing railway is far greater than the cost of the proposed additional fast line linking London with the midlands and north of England, with spin-off benefits for Scotland, about which so much fuss is being made. The investment in the railway now is rapidly repairing the damage caused by politicians (misguided or worse) 50 years ago.
•John Wylde is the author of ‘Integrated Transport – a Will-o’-the-wisp?’ (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. Order from the Berwick Advertiser office.