Re-connecting left behind towns

In mid-November, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced a "£500m Beeching Reversal Fund" to start "re-opening rail lines axed under Harold Wilson's Government". Writing in the Daily Telegraph, he suggested this would start in the North.

And most welcome it will be – especially in the former mining area of Northumberland, where there is a surviving freight line available to re-connect Ashington, Bedlington, Blyth and Newsham with Newcastle city centre and the Tyne & Wear Metro network. Costed at £191m in 2016 and recommended by IPPR as a 'quick win' for Transport for the North in March this year, it really should be possible to get a service up and running in the life of the next Parliament.

On a cost/mile basis, this project is probably about as good as it gets, thanks to the line's continued existence for freight and modest plans for station designs. Even then, retention of level crossings will be critically scrutinised for safety risks, costly to overcome. But much more funding is going to be needed if the Conservative Party manifesto plan of "restoring many lines, reconnecting small towns" is to be fulfilled.

Actually, in Northern England, there are not many good rail re-opening prospects on offer. Typically – as in the Ripon-Harrogate-Leeds corridor – connections today are provided commercially by express bus operators, with high quality fully accessible vehicles, supporting free wi-fi and smart ticketing. In the Blyth case, peak express bus services get commuters to Newcastle city centre in under an hour. The problem is that express bus journey times into urban centres typically worsen over the years as congestion grows. As ever, rail's real advantage is fast, reliable, access to city centres.

So let's be clear: this new grant funding should not be wasted on romantic and nostalgic notions of deep rural branch lines coming back to life. Most branch lines were closed because they carried very few passengers – even where they connected growing towns (such as Welwyn-Hertford and Hatfield-Luton in Shapps's own parliamentary constituency – lines closing in 1951 and 1965 respectively, both at times of a Labour Government, as it happens). At least these two long-closed railways in Hertfordshire connected with main lines at each end, so had the potential to strengthen travel choices across the rail network.

Branch lines to serve towns in deep rural areas were more often dead-end affairs. Network design was never the British way. We can't afford to make the same mistake again. Railways built when there was no motorised road transport could not operate 'multi-modally' as they surely must today.

The emphasis going forward should be on the value of (re-establishing) connectivity for 'off-line' towns, rather than on the means to achieving it. Impossible in the 19th century but essential in the 21st, the choice between express interurban bus solutions and re-instated (or new) railways needs to be fully assessed.

Why bother? Because if, as in the case of Skipton Colne re-opening, there is no railway left, a reinstatement will be considered as a new railway and because of this it would need to be built to contemporary standards. This means no level crossings (so grade separation or realignment), extra width for safe walkways (so structures, cuttings and embankments widened as well as re-designed for long-term stability); and if you want to run freight trains too, surviving structures may need to be strengthened/rebuilt. Basically, once abandoned, re-opening means building a new railway in cost terms. Sorry, but a grant of £0.5bn could easily disappear in a single project. Best not to be restricted, then, to abandoned railway alignments.

If express interurban bus solutions (which have much lower capital costs) are to find favour, besides premium quality vehicles, on-street priorities for quick, dependable, journey times are needed. And if people are to rely on these services, the current deregulated model (bus service termination with only 56 days' notice) will need to change.

A great virtue of reliable scheduled public transport is that it can be the basis for decisions on where to live and work, as well as how to access education and medical centres without being dependent on owning a private car. These key stages-of-life location decisions are at the heart of the wider economic boost that transport investment brings (and much of the justification for public sector funding). This is especially true for 'left behind' places, where without dependable transport services, the alternative for job-seekers is often to move out.

The benefits of reconnecting towns can be magnified by embracing the concept of local mobility hubs. Station stops on new/re-opened rail schemes or express interurban bus routes should be designed to provide options like bike-share, taxi, car club and other sustainable travel options as discussed in Transport Times last week. This way, the investment could bring valuable agglomeration benefits too, with a stimulus to local development.