Beeching rail: Government promises £500m fund to reverse cuts

Simon Calder
A £500m fund has been promised to open historic rail lines: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The finest structure in Fleetwood, Lancashire, is the North Euston Hotel. Decimus Burton’s semi-circular masterpiece opened in 1841, when the port on the Fylde coast became a crucial component of the West Coast main line between London and Glasgow.

In that year, the railway from Euston station in the capital reached Fleetwood. It created a new route for travellers between the two cities: from London to Fleetwood by rail, then a packet boat north over the Irish Sea to Ardrossan in Ayrshire, which had a rail link to Glasgow.

Within a decade new lines rendered this route obsolete, but trains continued to run to Fleetwood until the route was axed in the “Beeching cuts” in 1966.

A decade earlier, the then-transport secretary, Ernest Marples, began a radical pruning of Britain’s railways with a White Paper that insisted: “The system must be made more compact.”

The Conservative minister commissioned a report by Dr Richard Beeching. He concluded: “We should expect the provision of railways to be limited to routes over which it is possible to develop dense flows of traffic.”

In the wholesale butchering that ensued, passenger services ended on one-third of the rail network and more than 2,300 stations were closed.

Many of the closures were enacted by the Labour government between 1964 and 1970.

Grant Shapps, the current transport secretary, has pledged to reverse the Fleetwood closure, along with some other rail network cuts that were mandated 60 years ago by his predecessor.

He said: “Many communities still live with the scars that came from the closure of their local railway more than five decades ago.

“Today sees work begin to undo the damage of the Beeching cuts by restoring local railways and stations to their former glory.”

Boris Johnson promised a £500m “Beeching reversal” fund during the 2019 general election campaign. It followed a similar vow made in 2017 by the last transport secretary, Chris Grayling.

But there are concerns about whether the cash available for reversing the Beeching cuts will make more than a superficial difference.

Nigel Harris, managing editor of Rail magazine, called it: “Loose change, classic distraction politics.”

He estimates that the £500m will be enough to reinstate only 25 miles of track – representing half of one per cent of the 5,000 miles closed under the Beeching cuts.

The Borders Railway, a Scottish government project to restore the northernmost 30 miles of the Edinburgh-Carlisle line, cost £300m. The route reopened in 2015.

Just £100,000 has been assigned to the rail link between Fleetwood and the existing rail network at Poulton-le-Fylde – to “develop proposals”, according to the Department for Transport (DfT).

A further £1.5m will be spent “to drive forward the return of passenger services to the Ashington-Blyth-Tyne line” on the Northumberland coast.

Ashington and Blyth stations were closed in 1964.

In addition, £20m will be added to the New Stations Fund, which has opened 10 new stations on existing lines.

The latest addition, Worcestershire Parkway station, is located at the intersection of the North Cotswold Line and the CrossCountry route from Cardiff to Nottingham. Services were due to start in December 2019 but the opening has been delayed until “early in the New Year”, according to the train operator GWR.

The funding announcement comes as the rail franchise system established during rail privatisation in the 1990s is unravelling fast.

Northern Rail and South Western Railway are set to be stripped of their franchises, and the performance of TransPennine Express is under review.

The North Euston Hotel in Fleetwood remains open, with twin rooms from £58.

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