KEN HOUSTON reports on the highly-controversial proposal by a Right-wing think-tank to transform the nation’s commuting habits
THERE is a belief – widely-held and not just confined to steam-era romantics – that the cuts imposed by Dr Richard Beeching half a century ago, which left huge swathes of Britain without access to railway services, were a disaster
Indeed, in recent years there has been a trend among national and local politicians to put back into service some of the lines that were lost, albeit on a relatively small scale.
However, according to the free-market think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the country would be better served by further rail cuts, not less, especially in respect of commuter services.
It proposed last week that many commuter rail lines serving London and large provincial cities should be transformed into dedicated busways. In essence, it claims, the benefits would be as follows: lower fares and fewer government subsidies; more frequent and reliable services; an end to overcrowding with seats guaranteed on longer journeys; the ability to cheaply extend services to communities currently not served by rail.
The resultant savings could be as much as £6 billion per annum.
The IEA believes its case stands both socially and economically but that “a combination of rigid state control and powerful vested interests means there is little consideration of alternative ways of transporting large volumes of commuters”.
The 40 per cent of spending on the heavy rail network funded by government “has fuelled special interest groups and hampered efforts to embrace innovative alternatives in public transport”.
Although the proposals may seem revolutionary (and, to some, just plain daft), dedicated busways are already in operation, under construction or planned in several parts of England, including London, Bristol, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Hampshire, Durham, Cheshire and Lancashire.
These are not replacements for local rail services but much of each busway operates, or will operate, free of other traffic, over the track-bed of redundant rail lines.
Public reaction to the schemes that have already opened has so, far, been mixed although this being a new concept (at least for the UK), some of the problems experienced might be put down to ‘teething troubles’.
Indeed most of those seem to arise on parts of the ‘line’ where the buses have to share the roadway; in principle there is a widespread view that busways, totally divorced from other road traffic, can provide a service as good as (although the IEA would say better than) that of a commuter rail service at considerably less cost.
A few years ago, Edinburgh did possess a short section of dedicated busway (later to become part of the tram line) but so far the only full busway project planned for Scotland is ‘Clyde Fastlink’, running from Glasgow city centre westwards along the north and south banks of the river.
The first phase of Fastlink should be operational this year but it is not yet clear if the scheme will be operated by conventional buses or the long, articulated ‘trams on rubber wheels’ pictured in the promotional literature.
For some years campaigners have called for the reinstatement of two railway branch lines in Fife – one to St Andrews and the other to Levenmouth and link these with the main east coast line. (With a combined population of 37,000, Levenmouth is said to be the largest urban community in Scotland without a rail service).
As the proposals have so far fallen on deaf ears (at least in terms of government funding), a dedicated busway linking with the nearest main-line stations might be seen as a viable alternative in each case. No doubt some will see this as a ‘cheapskate’ option but if the outcome is comfortable, faster and more reliable communications does the method of transportation really matter?
And if the level of patronage turned out to be higher than expected, the case could be advanced for an upgrade to full railway at some future stage.
LET’S BEAR WITH PADDINGTON
TALKING of trains, here is a fascinating take on HS2 by Gareth David, a former director of the Great Central Railway Company.
When critics say, ‘where’s the logic in spending £40bn just to cut 20 minutes of the journey tie between London and Birmingham?’ the response from the Department for Transport is that HS2 is not primarily about speed but capacity, the present infrastructure on the West Coast main line being full to bursting.
If that is the case, says Mr David, the problem can be solved at a tiny fraction of the cost of HS2. He reminds us that prior to electrification in 1967, many London to Birmingham services left the capital not from Euston but Paddington. London Cross-Rail, operational from next year, will lead to spare capacity at Paddington and he argues that focussing ‘fast’ Birmingham services on this terminal would relieve the pressure on the entire West Coast route.
Although Mr David did not make any direct reference, such a scenario would likely benefit Scotland, the extra capacity created on the West Coast line leading to an improvement in inter-city services to and from Glasgow Central (and, by implication, services such as Edinburgh-Manchester which join the line at Carstairs Junction).
NUTTING THE SCOTS
ONE of the surprises of last year’s European elections was UKIP’s success in gaining one of the six Scottish seats.
However, UKIP Scotland will be hoping that efforts to build on this at the forthcoming general election must not have been put in jeopardy by the performance of UKIP’s deputy leader (and straight-talking Scouser), Paul Nuttall, when he appeared on a recent edition of Question Time.
Responding to a question which seemed to cover both EVEL (English votes for English laws) and the Barnett Formula, Mr Nuttall ranted about the Scottish position of “take, take, take….” (actually using the word seven times).
Now looked at from south of the Border, that might seem a plausible position to…..erm…..take…..but unfortunately Mr Nuttall did not make clear if he was referring to Sturgeon, Salmond, etc. or the Scottish people as a whole. I usually treat rants by lefty harpies about UKIP being “anti-Scottish” with a hefty dose of salt, but on this occasion the deputy leader did sound just that, even if he did not mean to.
Whether or not one agrees with UKIP policies (against, immigration; for smoking in pubs, long liquid lunches), it is surely good for democracy that a party which supports withdrawal from the EU has an electoral presence in Scotland – especially as there are anti-EU sentiments on the left, as well as the right, of the political spectrum.
Mr Nuttall might consider that among the recipients of government funds, Merseyside is seldom at the end of the queue.
SILENCE ON THE SOLENT
THE QT programme referred to was broadcast from Eastleigh, in deepest Hampshire, and attended by an audience that was “hideously white”, as Greg Dyke, the former director-general of the BBC, would have described it.
Given this environment it might have been expected that Mr Nuttall’s stance would have attracted strong support among a Home Counties audience yet when he finished – eventually – only a few isolated hand-claps could be heard.
The reaction of the rest of the audience was one of almost total silence, suggesting that as far as Scotland is concerned, the English are either lovingly tolerant or completely indifferent.