A new report says reopening closed railways offers huge potential, but development and other obstacles are a major problem so a system of safeguarding is needed, writes Jon Reeds…

Drivers negotiating summer Lake District jams on the A66 west of Keswick would be surprised to learn they’re travelling along a railway.

Yet it’s true; the railway between Cockermouth, Keswick and Penrith was a victim of the now notorious Beeching closures and a 13-kilometre section was later turned into a trunk road. Nowadays it’s easy to forget that a dense network of former railway alignments cross our landscape. Residents of urban sprawl between Christchurch and Ringwood or between Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth, for instance, could be forgiven for not knowing they would once have enjoyed a rail service and trains ran where many of the houses now stand.

The name most identified with 20th Century rail closures is Dr Richard Beeching, but lines had been closing for 50 years before he became BR chairman. The network peaked at around 37,000 kilometres in 1914, then a crop of marginal lines shut during the Great War, there was a further cull during the Depression and another during World War II. The British Transport Commission then took the axe to many uneconomic lines and between 1948 and 1962 some 5,430 kilometres of lines were closed.

But it’s the Beeching axe that’s inevitably recalled and though a few positives like intermodal traffic came out of his two reports, they’re best remembered for the 6,367 kilometres of line closed in the seven years up to 1970. Nor did it end there; lines continued closing throughout the 1970s and Whitehall, anti-rail as ever, went on proposing fresh closure programmes beyond that.

Northern Ireland’s rail system too was savagely hacked in the 1960s following a report by Sir Henry Benson which generated a programme with a strong sectarian bias and closure of the Portadown-Derry line was a factor in the subsequent troubles.

By the 1980s most people outside Whitehall realised things had gone much too far and significant parts of the country had been left with inadequate or absent rail services. Since that time hundreds of stations on existing lines have opened or reopened and passenger services have been restored to a small number of freight-only lines.

Rebuilding of demolished lines is much rarer, but the 56 kilometres Borders Railway reopened in 2015 demonstrated the potential. There are around 16,000 kilometres of closed railways in Great Britain and about 1,000 kilometres in Northern Ireland. Huge areas are still completely bereft of rail passenger services and lots of major urban areas still lack the dense networks of rail-based public transport enjoyed by many towns and cities around the world.

‘Transit-oriented-development’ is a central feature of the Smart Growth movement which has achieved so much in North America over the past 30 years. Where once the USA was the home of hyper-sprawl, 18-lane freeways and collapsing inner-cities, today dozens of cities have installed light-rail or metro systems, inner-cities are thriving, sprawl is much less rampant and some Americans have even learned to live without cars.

Smart Growth UK is an informal coalition of organisations and people who believe we too could do planning differently to the UK default of low-density, car-dependent, greenfield sprawl. There are huge sustainability benefits to be gained from medium-density urban life, optimised for public transport and active travel, protection of the countryside and a move from aviation and driving to rail-based alternatives.

These principles spurred our recent report on the potential for reopening lines. The easiest opportunities are reinstating passenger services on freight-only or mothballed lines, though even here costs can be substantial. Our report looked at possible schemes and suggested candidates under three levels of priority, as a basis for discussion.

More alluring, but much more challenging, is reopening lines which have been demolished after closure.

No sooner is a line demolished than a range of interests begin nibbling at the trackbed and creating obstacles for reopening.

The biggest destroyer of railway formations is agriculture, but it is perhaps the easiest to reverse. Other obstacles include reservoirs, landfill sites, cycle paths etc. and road builders just love those straight and level routes. But it’s built development, particularly residential, that’s most expensive to deal with and often most likely to generate opposition.

Yet the opportunities are immense. Our cities need light-rail, metro, tram-train and suburban heavy-rail – whatever’s most appropriate – and railway alignments offer near-perfect opportunities. Many towns and cities need linking with their neighbours and remoter rural areas are often bereft of public transport.

Beyond those lie the urgent needs to expand capacity on our existing rail network and to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions. Both necessitate reopening railways. It wasn’t only under-used rural lines that were destroyed by Beeching and beyond; main lines and commuter routes went too. Lines like Buxton-Matlock, Tweedbank-Carlisle and Okehampton-Bere Alston could provide vital capacity, as could many less well known routes.

Again we made recommendations for three tiers of rebuilding demolished lines. We don’t imagine our lists are definitive, but we do believe they should form the basis for serious discussion.

Many old lines, of course, simply aren’t worth rebuilding; some should never have been built, some have lost their original traffic and have no potential for new and some have been so seriously built over it would be simpler just to start again.

Putting up a case involves balancing several factors: traffic potential, social need, the fit with the existing network and the degree of survival of the route and major infrastructure. There’s seldom a simple answer but we listed a big set of routes, a sign of the potential even if a huge, multi-decadal challenge would be involved.

Each year more lengths of these routes disappear under bricks and mortar or macadam. But formal safeguarding is expensive and complex and is plainly only appropriate where a case for reopening is well advanced. Something simpler is needed.

In both Scotland and Wales, national planning policy urges local authorities to use local plans to safeguard former railways with potential for reopening, allowing them to reject developments that could militate against reopening.

England’s national planning policy has no such provisions, geared as it is essentially to promoting greenfield house building. But there is no reason why, if the Government really means what it says about decarbonising transport, lines shouldn’t be safeguarded from development as the first stage of their eventual reopening.

There is no lack of local enthusiasm. Many long-standing campaigns have urged reopening of lines all over the UK. The Scottish and Welsh Governments are both involved in reopening proposals and Scotland has a ‘pipeline-based’ approach to rail project development.

The DfT announced a ‘Reversing Beeching’ programme last year with some very cautious proposals to begin spending £500 million on a small handful of reopenings, new stations, some research funding and an ideas fund.

The latter is now the Restoring Your Railway Fund and its call for ideas generated 60 responses, with a panel now set up to examine bids.

It’s a very cautious toe in the water. Our report showed both the potential and the need are enormous, especially as our transport sector is emerging as the big problem in tackling climate change.

We have a £27.4 billion road building programme set to make greenhouse gas emissions very much worse, while our railways are crying out for investment in many areas. Reopening lines needs to become one of those priorities.

Jon Reeds is co-ordinator of the Smart Growth UK coalition.

Defending Our Lines – Safeguarding Railways for Reopening