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Age of the train is returning

A steam train emerging from Shute Shelve tunnel

Infrastructure required

Back in 2015 Harry Mottram mused the possible return of a new age of the train.

Michael Portillo said one thing of interest in his BBC TV programme on the Strawberry Line. Standing in Yatton and looking down the cycle path he remarked that is was sad so many branch lines were closed – but now they seemed to be reopening. Today he seemed to muse was the age of the train. Well he may be right. There’s no plans to reopen the strawberry Line – but other lines are under inspection in the region.

A petition has been launched asking the Government to reopen the Somerset and Dorset Railway. Created by James Type, the petition asks “For the Government to consider reopening the Somerset and Dorset Railway, this is now a much needed transport link from north to south.”

The railway went from Bournemouth to Burnham-on-Sea via Shepton Mallet, Glastonbury and Wells and closed to passengers in 1966. The petition closes 21 November. To sign go to epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/41959.

Congresbury Station in the 1950s has been demolished

What an amazing thought – you could take a train from coast to coast – through part of the Strawberry Line. If you look on Google maps you can trace much of the former track – it makes you think what the possibilities would be. Although it will be interesting if the dress code changes back to the heyday of rail with men wearing trilby hats. Meanwhile in Bath councillors have openly discussed last month (and put on hold) a planned reopening of the Radstock to Frome railway. It’s been put back as it could cost around £40m to reopen – although it’s advocates say that would be recouped with new tourists, business and employment.

Bath and North East Somerset Council’s cabinet discussed a report looking at the cost of reopening the line that shut in 1988. The document from engineering consultancy Halcrow said the £40 million project would not be cost-effective. However Councillor Eleanor Jackson (Lab, Radstock) encouraged the cabinet to look at the rise in the popularity of rail travel nationally. Dr Jackson said: “The estimated cost is £41.3 millionwhich makes it much cheaper than any comparable road option, while it would become easier to ship out goods from Westfield Industrial Estate and other manufacturing areas in the Somer Valley, reduce congestion in Bath, the carbon footprint and attract tourists.”

If these two plans seem some way off then a third one may be a reality soon. The Bristol to Portishead railway is still intact – used regularly by freight – the line has stations, track and sleepers – it just needs passenger trains. With the vast increase in the population of Portishead and the overstretched road into Bristol it seems a likely possibility. The track runs along the Gorge on the Somerset side emerging in Bedminster.

Holidays: the excursion train to Burnham-on-Sea in 1955

This spring Dr Liam Fox, MP for North Somerset, said he was “more upbeat than on any previous time” about the prospect of seeing trains running to Portishead. Dr Fox attended a meeting with Transport Minister, Simon Burns, and members of the Portishead Railway Group shortly before Christmas and said: “We were all very optimistic following the information that the Minister was able to give us. I hope that we will now see trains running in 2017 and expect that we will get a definitive announcement on dates and funding in Parliament before the summer recess”. Dr Fox expressed his thanks for the support given by the Portishead Railway Group, North Somerset Council and the hundreds of local residents who have given their support. For more on this campaign visit http://www.portisheadrailwaygroup.org/ 

Meanwhile a lengthy article in the Sunday Observer last month lambasted the decision by the Macmillan Government to close the branch lines by Dr Beeching. The article by Robin McKie in his feature entitled “How Beeching got it wrong” wrote: “There are few men more vilified in British history than Richard Beeching. In popularity rankings, the former ICI boss – who was, after all, responsible for axing 5,000 miles of UK rail network – usually ranks somewhere between Richard III and Robert Maxwell.” McKie said: “Published on 27 March 1963, Beeching’s report, The Restructuring of British Railways, outlined plans to cut more than 5,000 miles of track and more than 2,000 stations. Dozens of branch lines that linked villages with market towns were rated egregious loss-makers to be culled, along with great chunks of mainline. Today the makeup of UK transport looks very different from the one envisaged by Dr Beeching. Rail passenger figures have almost doubled over the past 10 years; commuter trains are crammed; young people are deserting the car for the train; and Britain’s railway bosses are struggling to meet soaring demands for seats. The legacy of Beeching – dug-up lines, sold-off track beds and demolished bridges – has only hindered plans to revitalise the network, revealing the dangers of having a single, inflexible vision when planning infrastructure.”

Axbridge Station in the 1950s

Interestingly McKie raised the point that some have tried to claim that “Beeching actually saved the railways by taking his axe to the lines that were losing the most money. Had he not done so, worse cuts would have followed in later years, it is claimed.” However he pointed out that Richard Faulkner, co-author with Chris Austin of Holding the Line: How Britain’s Railways Were Saved, will have no truck with any revisionist sympathy for the man. “Beeching had only one recipe for saving Britain’s loss-making railways and that was to make the network smaller and smaller. He lacked vision and we are paying for that today. Of course, he was not the only public figure who completely misunderstood railways but he was certainly the most prominent.”

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