A FUND of £500 million has been promised by the Government as the first step in reopening railways around the country, although only £21.9 million has been allocated so far.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps visited the Fleetwood area, where the line from Fleetwood to Poulton-le-Fylde lost its passenger services in 1970, although most of the line continued to be used by freight trains serving an ICI plant at Burn Naze until 1999. The track is still in position between Poulton-le-Fylde and the outskirts of Fleetwood, but it is not in use. Mr Shapps said £100,000 is to be allocated to fund the preparation of detailed proposals to restore the passenger service.
Meanwhile his colleague rail minister Chris Heaton-Harris was in the north east, where he visited Bedlington station to announce £1.5 million of funding to help with the return of passenger services on the Ashington-Blyth-Tyne lines, sections of which have been candidates for reopening for many years after the withdrawal of passenger services to Ashington and Blyth in 1964.
Both the Fleetwood and Ashington/Blythe closures had been proposed by British Railways Board chairman Dr Richard Beeching in his controversial ‘Reshaping’ report of March 1963, although many passenger train services had already been withdrawn before Dr Beeching was appointed in 1961 and more were added to the closure list long after he had gone.
£21.9 million out of the headline figure of £500 million has been committed so far. Apart from £1.5 million for Ashington-Blyth-Tyne and £100,000 for Fleetwood, there is £300,000 for an ‘Ideas Fund’, which the Department for Transport says is ‘to encourage innovative ideas that will then be considered for further funding in the future’. As part of this initiative, MPs, local authorities and community groups in England are being invited to lodge proposals on how they could use funding to help reinstate withdrawn rail services.
The lion’s share of £20 million is a boost for the existing New Stations Fund, which has already helped to open 10 stations in England and Wales.
Chris Heaton-Harris said: ‘This is an exciting moment as we look to revitalise our railways, reconnect communities and reinvigorate our country.
“Local MPs, councillors and community leaders are the greatest champions of their local lines, and we want to work closely together to ensure the projects with the greatest potential have the support they need.
‘There will also be opportunities for towns who have lost stations to receive a boost, as we launch another round of our New Stations Fund.’
The plans have received a cautious response.
Labour’s shadow transport minister Andy McDonald said: ‘The Conservatives claim to have been reversing Beeching cuts since 2017 despite not reopening an inch of track. Investing in the railway is a fantastic policy but this is meaningless without a serious funding commitment of billions of pounds. The timing of this announcement is also suspicious and seems designed to distract from the imminent collapse of the Northern rail franchise.’
RMT general secretary Mick Cash was also doubtful, saying: ‘The idea that this is a reversal of the Beeching cuts is PR spin way out of control. This is a bare-faced attempt to distract attention from the daily chaos on Northern, South Western, TransPennine and Britain’s other basket-case franchises.’
He added: ‘RMT welcomes any investment in our railways but £500 million is a drop in the ocean compared to what’s really required.’