Services start on the Borders Railway on 6 September. After 45 years of being cut off, Galashiels will be back on the national railway map. The compelling tale of those battle-hardened souls who kept on fighting for this rail revival has been nicely documented by David Spaven in his book Waverley Route: the battle for the Borders Railway (Argyll Publishing).

Re-connection with Edinburgh is already showing signs of stimulating housing growth.
Tourist traffic to the attractions of Abbotsford (Sir Walter Scott's home), and Melrose Abbey near the terminus station at Tweedbank – as well as new commuter patterns to work and education – seem likely to follow.

So is now the time to look more widely at the question of rail re-openings? Or is that an xercise in nostalgia – since many closed lines carried little traffic when closed 50 or more years ago, and would struggle to do better today?

What is clear is that at times of budget constraint, it's very difficult for ministers to decide to prioritise the lengthy process of building a new line compared with addressing any of the always abundant problems on today's operational railway. I couldn't persuade my colleagues in the Strategic Rail Authority to prioritise even preliminary spending on East
West Rail (Oxford-Cambridge) 12 years ago, for example. Yet since then, it has emerged as a well-supported project with a rich spectrum of funding sources, including a development levy.

Rail re-openings are the subject of essentially local campaigns, and even those that have been apparently rebuffed (Derbyshire's Matlock-Buxton, say) have a habit of refusing to die. Some grow in stature as a response to planning pressures – so the possible reconnection of Wisbech becomes potentially valuable in addressing housing and commuter pressure around Cambridge.

A couple of years ago, ATOC produced an assessment of possible line re-openings, but it got short shrift from the ministers of the day – I believe because it failed to identify the wider problems reinstatement could solve.

A rigorous approach would start by categorising these potential problems. These might be:

  • Creating valuable commuting capacity in strong growth areas
  • Providing major connectivity gains detectable at a national network level
  • Giving access to the national rail network from a wide catchment bereft of a rail service
  • Providing a short cut that improves service viability
  • Creating a diversionary route – for freight, or for times of network disruption.

Recent research published by CPRE took the Plymouth-Tavistock-Okehampton-Exeter route as a case study. This is a line that is being considered already because of its diversionary route potential (including to bypass Dawlish when the need arises). But the CPRE research looks at the benefits of a local service to the two West Devon towns en route, the impact on the wider rural hinterland, and the benefits to the cities at either end. Thirty-five years after the research into the social consequences of rail closures written by Mayer Hillman and Joan Whalley (which included the Okehampton case), here are the beginnings of an unexpected sequel: the possible social consequences of getting a rail service back again.

Just as the impacts of line closures are complex, so too are the likely effects of line re-opening. Most strikingly, rail connectivity is crucially linked to housing questions. In the West Devon case, where housing densities are very low and commuting distances have grown to be about the longest in the whole country, it would seem likely that rail reinstatement would have a market response in the housing sector and help make more acceptable a pattern of sustainable expansion of housing in both Tavistock and Okehampton.

In appraisal terms, the landuse implications of the with-rail case will be different from the without-rail case. Conventional cost-benefit analysis with a fixed land use assumption will not reveal the best estimate of the railway's impact.

Rather than respond to local pressure groups case-by-case, the Department of Transport might want to look at the national rail network, with its over 100% growth in usage over
the last 20 years, and consider where its reach and benefits could be usefully extended. This
isn't a question of re-opening closed branch lines so much as looking at growth pressures and connectivity gaps systematically.

Places with no rail connectivity often have weak economies and ageing populations. Besides backing the winners (our more successful cities), let's look at the areas of neglect too and see what economic stimulus can be provided.

Reference: Transport Times, July-Aug 2015 Issue

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