19 July 2012
Next year will be the 50th anniversary of the Beeching Report, which led to the closure of many rail lines.
Yet the case for new or reopened connections is increasingly strong, with demand for rail now at its highest level since before the Second World War.
Despite the growing case for new and reopened connections, there is no clear process for this to happen and many local authorities lack the capacity or skills to progress schemes themselves.
Since devolution, the Scottish and Welsh governments have both presided over or promoted reopenings, as has the devolved administration in London.
In the big cities outside London, integrated transport authorities and passenger transport executives have promoted significant reopenings. However, these are all authorities with the size, powers and funding to develop and implement rail projects. Smaller unitary authorities in particular are less able to pursue reopenings or to build the capacity internally to do so.
Devolution to local authorities of responsibility for commissioning local rail services should make reopenings simpler, but the growth of local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) and the use of LEP areas adds other decision makers into the mix. Advice for councils on reopenings is hard to come by and only where authorities work together and pool resources does it become possible to commission the detailed work that is needed to make the case for reopenings.
While the Government has already announced its plans for the railways up to 2019, we think there should be an additional, dedicated reopenings fund for local authorities to bid into. The Government should also set up a specialist unit led by Network Rail to coordinate work on reopenings and help with business cases, transport and works orders and operational issues. Finally, routes for possible reopenings need to be safeguarded in the planning system.
The case for reopenings or new connections is not based on nostalgia for some imagined golden age of rail, but on providing congestion-free, low carbon transport choices. See the Better Transport website (below) for our latest report, 'Railway Reopenings', which makes the case for growing the rail network. We hope that Government, local authorities and the rail industry will respond positively.
Stephen Joseph is Chief Executive of Campaign for Better Transport
23 July 2012