Tuesday 2nd June 2020
The Government’s Restoring Your Railway Fund is a £500 million pot to “kickstart the restoration of lines closed more than 50 years ago”.
It’s had a few launches. Boris Johnson promoted the commitment during the election campaign last November on a visit to Fleetwood then at the end of January Grant Shapps returned there to officially launch the Fund, committing £100,000 to develop proposals for the town’s lost connection to Poulton-le-Fylde. The same day Minister Chris Heaton-Harris visited Bedlington Station where he announced £1.5 million to “drive forward the return of passenger services to the Ashington-Blyth-Tyne line”.
Both those Shapps and Heaton-Harris day-outs in January involved announcing a modest £300,000 from the £500 million for an ‘Ideas Fund’ to kickstart the process “to encourage innovative ideas” which could be considered for further funding in the future.
MPs, local authorities and community groups across England were invited to “come forward with proposals on how they could use funding to reinstate axed local services”. Meanwhile, as already reported, £20 million (from the £500 million) was set aside for a third round of the New Stations Fund, for which applications close this Friday.
The Ideas Fund has three rounds, the first already completed, being the ten ideas mentioned by Grant Shapps during his infamous Downing Street briefing over the recent Cummings Bank Holiday weekend. A second round is currently open with a closing date of 19th June, so not long to get your ideas in for that one. Then there’ll be a third round in November “to enable as many communities as possible to take advantage of the support provided”.
The DfT don’t seem worried about raising expectations holding three invitation rounds, bearing in mind the total funding available is just £500 million, which doesn’t go very far when it comes to restoring railway tracks. For example, there wasn’t much change from £350 million just to restore the Borders Railway between Edinburgh and Tweedbank a few years ago.
The Ideas Fund application process involves contacting your MP first off with your idea who passes the expression of interest to the DfT ahead of the relevant funding round. This is followed by a “more in-depth submission making your case” and “an assessment of the proposal by an expert panel”.
The panel includes Rail Minister Chris Heaton-Harris MP, Simon Clarke MP (Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government), Sir Peter Hendy (Chair, Network Rail), Jackie Sadek (CEO UK Regeneration) and Isabel Dedring, Fromer London Deputy Mayor for Transport.
So let’s take a closer look at the ten ideas which have made it through round one. Here’s the list:
Interestingly some of them involve restoring stations, which is a bit puzzling as I thought that’s what the New Stations Fund was for. As I mentioned in last Saturday’s weekly round up, other successful ideas on the list referred originally to ‘reinstating rail lines’, but they all already exist as freight lines or diversionary routes so the wording was hurriedly amended to ‘restoring passenger services’ when a DfT official spotted the howler on Saturday evening.
First up is ‘reopening Meir Railway Station between Stoke-On-Trent and North Staffordshire’. I’m not sure why the generic “north Staffordshire” rather than something more specific, especially as, confusingly, Stoke-on-Trent is further north in Staffordshire than ‘North Staffordshire’.
Meir lies between Longton (the station south of Stoke-on-Trent) and Blythe Bridge (the next station south) on the Crewe to Derby line. The station served the industrial estate and surrounding housing in Meir either side of the A50 with the station just east of the tunnel and the junction with the A520 (Leek to Stone road).
It’s reported the former station building built in 1894 was of timber construction including a booking office with cast iron coal burning stove, a waiting room with benched seating, a small store room for cleaning and bike storage, and a “Elsan” bucket type toilet that was normally emptied by the Junior Porter in a dug out hole in the small wooded area to the rear of the building. Presumably the feasibility into a new station will include more modern facilities!
Realistic Rating 8/10 – if a new station can be rebuilt at Bow Street (see this blog) then why not Meir?
The second ‘idea’ is ‘passenger services on the Barrow Hill line between Sheffield and Chesterfield’. This line which runs via Beighton already exists and acts as an alternative to the main line between these cities via Dronfield. It’s currently used by about half a dozen early morning and late night ‘Parliamentary Trains’ (eg the 05:59 Sheffield to Reading journey operated by Cross Country) and was last used as a major diversionary route when the main line via Dronfield was blocked by a landslide in 2014.
I’m not sure what diverting trains via this route would bring as a benefit. It means trains approaching Sheffield from the north rather than the south which I would have thought would add to the congested tracks in that area. There are two stations on part of the route not far from Sheffield (Darnall and Woodhouse) served by Northern on their Sheffield to Lincoln service but I wouldn’t have thought a direct link from these (if indeed they were included in any service) to Chesterfield was warranted. Why this idea has been short listed is a bit of mystery to me.
Realistic Rating 3/10 (as said, a few trains already use the tracks).
Third on the ‘ideas’ list is ‘passenger services on the Leicester to Burton (Ivanhoe) line’. This is another line which can be used by freight trains and runs for thirty-one miles via Coalville and Ashby-de-la-Zouch; both towns would undoubtedly benefit from having a rail service restored along with a station at Moira.
Passengers wanting to travel from Leicester to Burton have to travel via, and change trains at, Derby. Arriva run a direct bus during normal non-Covid times. It’s probably the best of the ten ideas short listed, except where would the trains originate from and continue to beyond Leicester and Burton, which could impact existing services.
Realistic Rating 7/10.
Fourth up is ‘reinstatement of branch lines on the isle of Wight’. Note the use of the plural ‘lines’. The idea is to take over (or rather ‘integrate with’) the Isle of Wight steam railway between Smallbrook Junction and Wootton plus extend the line over its former course to Newport, except that’s been significantly built over as you approach Newport.
I think we’re in fantasy land with this one, especially as the other idea is to extend the existing Island Line from its current Shanklin terminus south to the original terminal at Ventnor. It takes some doing that two of what must be the craziest and most expensive ideas are linked together and make it to a top ten for further consdieration.
The panel have obviously not realised the island enjoys an award winning bus service already linking Newport with Ryde and Ventnor with Shanklin, Sandown and Ryde. The Island Line in its current form consumes train loads of funding each year, any extensions would just add to the subsidy bill.
Realistic Rating 0/10.
Fifth is the ‘reinstatement of passing loop between St Albans Abbey and Watford Junction (Abbey Line)’. The existing hourly service must lose a fortune. So why spend a fortune on a passing loop so a half hourly service can operate and lose a double fortune, as well as put the viability of the parallel bus route 321 operated by Arriva every 15 minutes in jeopardy.
This bus route takes not much longer from central St Albans to Watford and is more convenient than St Albans Abbey station situated about a mile from the city centre. A barmy idea, although relative to some of the other ideas, it would involve fairly modest funding, and Hertfordshire is already sore at missing out on the Metropolitan Line being rerouted to Watford Junction, so this idea may gain ground to oil the political wheels.
Realistic Rating 3/10.
Sixth on the list is ‘reopening Wellington and Cullompton stations’. These are between Taunton and Exeter (it’s not Wellington, Shropshire which already has a station, but Wellington, Somerset). Both stations closed in 1964. Like Meir, I’m not sure why this proposal appears in the Ideas Fund rather than the New Stations Fund; but there we are.
Of the two, I would have thought Wellington stands a better chance of being a viable proposition with a population around 15,000 – almost twice that of Cullompton. There might also be issues over what trains could efficiently stop at an extra station on the busy GWR mainline.
Realistic Rating 6/10.
Seventh up is ‘passenger services on the Bury-Heywood-Rochdale lines’. Like the Isle of Wight steam railway idea, this seems to be suggesting a heritage railway would hand over all its hard work restoring the line to let passenger trains run again. The East Lancs Railway only completed the extension from Bury to Heywood in 2003 and had plans to run trains further east on the line which now connects to Rochdale at the previous station at Castleton.
It’s a bit cheeky to now suggest this would be taken over by National Rail services. I appreciate co-running arrangements are in place between Grosmont and Whitby between the North Yorkshire Moors Railway and National Rail, but it’s not an ideal arrangement. Rosso run a perfectly good fifteen minute bus service between Bury and Rochdale.
Realistic Rating 3/10.
Eighth is ‘regular passenger services on the Clitheroe to Hellifield railway line’. This line connects to the Settle Carlisle railway at Hellifield which is about 12 miles further north beyond Clitheroe. Trains have used this extension to provide a Sunday day out facility from towns in Lancashire (from Blackpool and Preston across to Blackburn) to connect with trains on the line to Carlisle at Hellifield in recent years.
The current timetable between Rochdale, Manchester and Clitheroe provides for about a half an hour stand time at Clitheroe, so there’s easily enough time to trundle on to Hellifield and back, even though the justification for doing so is somewhat limited. But it could be a ‘quick win’ at minimal cost, so I wouldn’t be surprised at seeing it move from an ‘idea’ to ‘reality’.
Realistic Rating 10/10.
Ninth is ‘reinstatement of rail access to Devizes via a new station at Lydeway’. This is another ‘new station’ idea; more than that it would be another new ‘parkway’ station idea. There’s no community at ‘Lydeway’ ; it’s just a former junction on the Berks & Hants line between Pewsey and Westbury where a line used to branch off and serve Devizes continuing via Holt to Bradford-on-Avon and Bath.
The idea would be to provide a station convenient for people to drive and cycle the three and a half miles to Devizes (population 12,000). It makes as much sense as the recently opened Worcestershire Parkway so seems quite a realistic proposition.
Realistic Rating 8/10.
And finally idea number ten is ‘passenger services on the Totton-Fawley (Waterside) line’. This line last saw passenger trains in 1966 and in more recent years has ben used by the military port and the Fawley oil refinery, but is now disused. Hampshire County Council shelved the idea of using the six-mile line for commuter and tourist services in 2014 due to cost concerns.
There’s a bit of a campaign building again to reconsider particularly as a 1,500 home development is planned for the site of the former Fawley Power Station. Probably worth more work looking at, but it’s out on a limb and will never be viable.
Realistic Rating 3/10.
As you can see there’s no shortage of ideas, and more will come when the second and third tranches of the ‘Ideas Fund’ are announced by an excited Secretary of State (Lewes-Uckfield; Skipton-Colne?). Just how many of these ideas actually come to fruition is quite another matter. But it’s nice to see serious consideration being given to concepts that have been around a long time. I’m sure the local MPs are thrilled; which is probably the point, especially as they’re nearly all Conservative Party MPs (aside from Sheffield, Chesterfield, Rochdale and Leicester).