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Monday essay: Off the rails?

In spite of the present problems, the Department for Transport is moving ahead with plans to reopen some railways – or at least, to fund more detailed proposals. Sim Harris has been looking at some newly-published DfT ‘Guidance’, and finds that it lacks some details.

THE Department for Transport rather oddly chose the Bank Holiday weekend to update its ‘guidance’ on plans to reopen railways with its ‘Restoring your railway fund’.

There is a new list of ten schemes which have been chosen to receive some (limited) financial help to develop a business case.

Some are simple station reopenings, as at Meir, which the guidance describes coyly as being ‘between Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire’. For those who wonder how anywhere can be described as being between a city and part of a county, Meir, which was closed in 1966, is actually south east of Stoke on the Derby line, between the present stations at Longton and Blythe Bridge.

Other proposals are also relatively simple, such as restoring a passenger service on the alternative route between Sheffield and Chesterfield via Barrow Hill, and the reopening of Wellington and Cullompton stations.

We move into trickier territory where lines have to be rebuilt, such as the ‘reinstatement of branch lines on the Isle of Wight’, of which more in a moment.

Another intriguing proposition is the ‘reinstatement of the Abbey line between St Albans Abbey and Watford Junction’. This would be very easy indeed on the face of it, because the railway not only exists but carries an electrified passenger service.

Therefore the DfT unblushingly leaves us to guess what remains to be reinstated. A possible answer is a crossing place at Bricket Wood (the line is single throughout, which naturally limits its capacity). But one problem in St Albans is that the Abbey Line terminus is at the bottom of a hill, and some distance from St Albans City station on the Midland Main Line.

The Abbey Line from Watford was St Albans’ first railway, and when the Midland was building its new main line to London a spur was constructed from the Abbey Line at How Wood to carry materials to the Midland site.

This spur never carried anything but engineering trains, but if it was rebuilt Abbey Line trains would be able to run directly into St Albans City for the first time ever – and there is even a former bay platform on the up side which could also be revived for the purpose (although some expensive additional crossovers would also be needed).

That would be more like a real reinstatement (in fact, a genuine enhancement), but the smart money is probably better invested in a crossing place at Bricket Wood, which would at least allow a significant increase in the timetable.

Meanwhile, there is a little nervousness on the Isle of Wight, where the IoW Steam Railway is cautious about the prospect of ‘reinstatement of branch lines’, particularly as its heritage trains run on part of the former route between Smallbrook Junction (on the line from Ryde) and Newport – which is a candidate.

Local MP Bob Seely is quoted by the ‘On the Wight’ news website as saying: ‘Working with the council and others, I will do all I can to see these aspirations become a reality.

‘However, we must also be realistic about the logistical challenges we face in seeing these routes restored.

‘My discussions with the steam railway last week confirmed that they will support feasibility studies, which will need to look at how – and if – the existing route between Smallbrook and Wootton could be utilised for public passenger services, alongside its existing use.

‘Understandably, the steam railway’s first priority is to ensure the continued operation of their award-winning and popular heritage railway.’

This is a good point. Railnews has previously discussed the problems which could arise if National Rail trains were to run once again between Taunton and Minehead – in particular, the potential loss of Light Railway status for the West Somerset Railway and the various derogations which go with it.

There may already be a similar elephant in the room on the Isle of Wight, or perhaps it is already trumpeting mournfully in the chines. If so, it is going to prove to be a hard animal to dislodge.

Any reopening of a line to National Rail services which has been preserved for heritage operations is going to be an uphill task – probably far harder than it was for Dr Beeching to close the line in the first place.

It has never yet been done. Does the DfT’s ‘Guidance’ take that into account?

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