By Michael Williams
Distressed families lugging heavy suitcases, tired, bawling children shivering in the cold, confused elderly folk uncertain paralysed with panic. No, not a refugee exodus in some far-flung corner of the world, but the scenes at Finsbury Park station in north London this week after vast crowds built up when all trains to King’s Cross – one of Britain’s busiest stations – were cancelled when track works over-ran.
This was only part of the rail travel shambles across the land. Over this holiday fortnight, entire swathes of Britain have become a public transport desert as the key arteries of the rail network have closed down, causing misery in a Christmas week when thousands of families planned to travel to see relatives.
And it’s not over yet. As embarrassed rail managers struggled to restore trains to King’s Cross yesterday (Sunday December 28), all trains from Euston to the Midlands, north and Scotland were also diverted or delayed. Nor will the misery end this morning (Monday December 29). There is only a skeleton service out of London’s Paddington to Bristol, Cardiff for the entire fortnight up to January 4.
It’s all down to “Essential engineering works” – a phrase now enshrined in the national lexicon of hackneyed excuses, along with “leaves on the line”, “the wrong kind of snow’”and the “buffet car will be closing at Watford”.
But the fiasco of the past few days is more than a joke. The responsibility for maintaining one of the nation’s most important assets belongs to Network Rail, whose own inefficient track record is worse than that the tracks it is supposed to look after.
Run by £675,000-a-year former oil industry executive Mark Carne, the company was slammed only last month (November 2014) in a damning report by the rail regulator for late trains, poor management and slow delivery of modernisation projects, almost every one of which was behind schedule. The company’s panjandrums argue that the tracks can’t be updated without closing entire routes for several days because there are no alternatives.
Yet cast your mind back 60 years. While London key termini became ghost stations this week, back in 1955, you could have taken your pick of routes to the north and west. King’s Cross and Euston closed? Then you could have popped along the road to Marylebone (one of the poet John Betjeman’s favourite termini and home of the legendary Master Cutler and Starlight Special trains). There a smart green locomotive, maybe even a sister of the famous Flying Scotsman, would have been on hand to bear you north.
At St Pancras next door, there would still have been comfortable train services to Scotland. Travelling to the West Country? Forget Paddington – the best trains to Devon and Cornwall, in the view of many passengers, always ran on the old Southern route from Waterloo.
Alas, no more. These alternative main lines to the north and west were dumped in the bin by the blinkered ideology of the then British Railways chairman Dr Beeching in the 1960s, which at a stroke cut the national network by a third.
It was all the more tragic in Marylebone’s case since it was the terminus of Britain’s newest main line. Originally intended to be a link to a Channel tunnel, it was built dead-straight and to the highest Continental standards – and reckoned, when opened in 1899, to be the finest British railway since Brunel. What a shocking waste when it was culled in 1966.
Yet now, more of us than ever are queueing at the railway station. According to the latest figures, there are nearly 1.5 billion passenger journeys a year – the highest total since records began. All this on a network scarcely expanded since Beeching.
Despite the bragging of ministers, this is not because we are a nation in love with train travel. Far from it. Many cash-strapped young people choose not to have a car because of high running and insurance costs. At the same time, motorists are fleeing from congested roads, while commuters are forced to travel ever greater distances to work on packed trains because of ludicrous London house prices.
Now with terrible hindsight, we can see the mistakes we made in the 1960s when we ripped the heart out of the rail network. Worse – unlike the French who kept the tracks of shut railway lines in place – it was British policy to tear them up so the lines couldn’t be used again.
All over the Britain, rotting in the undergrowth are civil engineering marvels built by our Victorian forebears – proud viaducts, bridges and tunnels abandoned to the elements like neolithic monuments. Yet many are still in good condition – a tribute to their builders.
For a fraction of the cost of the HS2 juggernaut, many of these lines could be rebuilt and reopened. Passengers on today’s London to Brighton line, for instance, are forced to travel in sardine-like conditions – so grim they would be illegal under EU law for the transport of animals. Yet running parallel is an alternative line that peters out abruptly at the buffers in the middle of rural Sussex. Restoring the missing link, axed in 1969, would be relatively simple, costing a mere £350m, compared with the £50 billion cost of HS2.
We’re not talking about nostagic old chuffers here. Buried in a tunnel under the Pennines at Woodhead are the remains of what, in the post-war era, was the most modern trunk railway in Britain. Surely it was crazy that the newly-electrified Manchester to Sheffield line through the three-mile Woodhead tunnel, constructed at huge expense in 1953, should be shut completely in 1981. Madder still, in the appalling weather this weekend motorists were trapped in the snow on the road over the Woodhead Pass while there was a perfectly good unused train tunnel beneath them – currently wasted in housing power cables for the National Grid.
The worst mistake of all was the closure of the old Southern Region main line to the West Country around Dartmoor, cruelly shut in 1966. Until then it had been the route of one of our most famous and comfortable trains – the Atlantic Coast Express from Waterloo to Plymouth and Padstow.
But the West Country economy paid the price for Beeching’s disastrous error earlier this year when the only alternative route was washed away by heavy seas at Dawlish, cutting Cornwall off from the rest of the nation for two months – at a devastating cost of £20m a day. Yet ministers still dither about reinstating the former line, costed at £875 million – a drop in the ocean compared with the planned spending on HS2.
Some even claim that the need to pour bucketfuls of cash into HS2 could be avoided altogether by reopening the abandoned Great Central route from London to Nottingham, Leeds and Manchester. Much of the old trackbed is still there and – although some has been built over and 50 miles are missing – supporters reckon it would cost £6 billion to restore – a tenth of the cost of HS2. Meanwhile those aboard the HS2 gravy train scoff.
But who says you can’t re-open a closed main line? I’ve just returned from watching engineers put the final touches to the wonderfully restored trackbed of the old Waverley route through the beautiful Borders from Carlisle to Edinburgh – once the Scotland-London main line and the most infamous of the Beeching closures. Next autumn, 30 miles of new track will open for business – the first new domestic main line for more than a century.
The fact is that all over Britain there are old lines just waiting to be woken from the dead. According to the Campaign for Better Transport, there are more than 200 similar closed railways languishing around the land that could have life breathed back into them.
On January 2, there will be yet another painful fare hike, hitting passengers’ pockets with a 2.2pc rise – outstripping the pay increases of most commuters.
‘The problem for us,’ admitted a senior rail manager candidly to me last week, ‘is that many of these passengers are effectively captives of the system. We need to be seen to offer something in return.’
They could start by giving us some of our old railways back!
* Michael Williams’s new book, The Trains Now Departed: Sixteen Excursions Into The Lost Delights Of Britain’s Railways’, will be published by Penguin Random House in May.