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Back on track: A branch line revival
The Planner – September 2014

The drive to get us off roads and on to more eco-friendly communal trains is fraught with difficulty not only because of Beeching's legacy, but also because of the disconnect between planner and rail authorities, says Mark Smulian

Sir Winston Churchill once described Russia as "A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma", and many planners may feel that description suits the rail industry.

Housing schemes and economic development can turn on the retention or construction of lines and stations, yet this requires engagement with a baffling array of bodies, including Network Rail, the Department for Transport (DfT), one or more train operators and possibly the Office of the Rail Regulator.

These all have different priorities and requirements that may not coincide.

They exist because of the way rail was privatised. Essentially, the DfT invites bids to run services on lines, or combinations of them, and operators bid for these long-term franchises, by indicating how much subsidy they expect, or how much they estimate they could return to the government, while the regulator oversees safety and competition issues.

But for local authorities successful engagement with rail can bring rewards - for example, a new service that opens an area for development, reduces social exclusion or attracts investors by making a place easier to reach.

"Even if network rail agrees to something, because the system is so crazily fragmented you have to see whether an operator is willing to stop their trains at a new station or run down a branch line"

There are plenty of examples of councils involved in rail, but mostly with branch lines; direct powers over franchises seem a way off.

With London Overground and Merseyrail, Transport for London and the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority are the respective franchising bodies, able to specify services and fares. Their success in taking this role from the DfT has led other conurbation authorities to try to do the same.

Overground and Merseyrail are, though, almost self-contained urban networks and the DfT has proved reluctant to see local authorities involved in setting the service standards in franchises for main rail lines.

TfL has been awarded three further suburban lines, but the DfT rejected an ambitious plan for it to collaborate with neighbouring counties to take over commuter rail services that originate outside London.

Similarly, the Rail North grouping of some 40 local authorities across northern England has entered a partnership with the DfT for the renewal of the Northern and TransPennine rail franchises.

This, though, gives it only a formal consultative role, rather removed from the service-setting powers originally sought.

Multiple stakeholders

In April, transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin rejected a proposal from West Midlands councils to take full control of the region's rail franchise, replacing the bulk of the London Midland franchise.

He said: "We consider that a phased approach to handing over responsibility to a devolved body is preferable to a West Midlands body taking full responsibility from day one."

As Christian Wolmar, author of many books on the rail industry, says: "The problem with doing anything with rail is that there are a lot of stakeholders involved.

"Even if Network Rail agrees to something, because the system is so crazily fragmented you then have to see whether an operator is willing to stop their trains at a new station or run down a branch line. It also depends on whether train paths are available, so it's immensely complicated."

Many of the 39 local growth deals agreed with local enterprise partnerships in June contain references to rail projects and may prove a potential source of financial support.

The business case for rail ought to be easy to make, not least as the government continually draws attention to the increases in passenger numbers on the network.

But it looks as if ministers have little sympathy with attempts by local authorities to take over parts of franchising for main lines. There are, however, opportunities for reopening or extending branch lines and for councils to support existing lines so that services are maintained or increased.

Engaging with rail is not easy, but there can be light at the end of the tunnel - and so much the better if it is an oncoming train.

Reopening a line

Long ago, a railway line linked the rural towns of the Scottish Borders to Edinburgh and Carlisle. Then came the Beeching axe, and it closed in 1969. It is now being rebuilt in a 294 million project financed largely by the Scottish Government, but also with an element from planning gain.

Autumn 2015 should see trains running from Edinburgh to Tweedbank, although any further extension back to Carlisle remains uncertain. Scottish Borders has the obscure distinction of being the only mainland UK council area with no station, and indeed no motorway, says its head of economic development and regeneration Bryan McGrath.

He explains: "The line is a way to open up development of the area. We see it as an essential initiative with a major impact on our economy.

"It's more than a transport project. In planning terms it's about how Scottish Borders plays its role in the Edinburgh city region and takes advantage of the opportunities there."

He sees four main benefits: an initial surge in construction jobs, followed by opening up employment through commuting to Edinburgh, easier attraction of tourism and business investment to the area and then a 'clustering' effect from these new businesses generating further growth.

Part of the local development plan for south-east Scotland is for housing at locations along the line, from which developers will make planning gain contributions to help repay the project's cost. The line is relatively easy to reinstate in engineering terms, as its track bed remained intact and its bridges proved to be in good condition despite 45 years with no maintenance.

Extending a line

Before the recession developer Kilbride came up with the idea of paying to reinstate a branch line to Tavistock from the Plymouth-Gunnislake line from the proceeds of a large housing scheme it proposed in the town.

The company's interest has since lapsed and Devon County Council has taken over the idea. Bruce Thompson, its head of transport co-ordination services, says an urban extension of some 700 houses will raise section 106 money towards reopening the line, which was closed after the Beeching cuts in the mid-1960s.

"The reason for reopening the line is that the main A386 from Tavistock to Plymouth is already highly congested and if Tavistock grows that will become even worse, so rail is seen as a good option for extra capacity," he says.

"The county has put in a funding bid to the LEP and we're confident that the projections for the line are realistic."

Both First Great Western and Network Rail have shown enthusiasm and the present plan is for an hourly Plymouth to Tavistock service, with a connecting train serving the existing section from Bere Alston to Gunnislake.

"There are lots of other rail possibilities, but it's very important that the local authority is focused on those where it can be sure it is possible to run trains and not spending time on those that do not stack up," says Thompson. "There are growth opportunities in Devon and we do not want to see them choked off by lack of rail capacity."

The council also hopes to increase services on the lightly used branch line to Okehampton, possibly as part of an inland alternative to the main South-West line through Dawlish, which was badly damaged by floods last winter.

Promoting branch lines

The Association of Community Rail Partnerships lists 45 local bodies established to promote the use of branch lines, or groups of them.

Community rail involves local volunteers, amenity groups and councils collaborating to improve lines and increase patronage. One example is the Devon and Cornwall Community Rail Partnership, which works with all Cornwall's branch lines and the Barnstaple to Exmouth line in Devon.

Development officer Rebecca Catterall says: "Our core activity is engaging the public with using the service through marketing. "We do leaflets for each line, timetables, guides to eating, drinking and walking along them, and work with groups that maintain station gardens."Funding comes from the two county councils, the University of Plymouth and operator First Great Western.

Catterall says: "The patronage on each line is different. For example, Looe is very tourist-based and busy in the summer while the line from Barnstaple is a vital link for commuters working in Exeter and people going to education."

Diverting a line

For historical reasons, parts of Transport for London's underground railway run into Hertfordshire, and in Watford the Metropolitan line finishes at an inconveniently sited suburban station.

Hertfordshire County Council has led a partnership to divert this line using the alignment of a defunct branch line to bring the Metropolitan to the town's hospital, centre and the main line Watford Junction station.

The 116.8 million Croxley Link line has been financed by central and local governmental and is due for completion in 2017.

Trevor Mason, Hertfordshire's safe and sustainable journeys manager, says: "The Croxley Link opens up large parts of west Watford for development and by having a rail link it relieves congestion in Watford, while linking to the junction allows for connections from elsewhere in Hertfordshire.

"The biggest problem has been getting all the partners together so that all can contribute at the same time. It's needed TfL, the DfT, the landowners and the LEP all lined up."

Hertfordshire is also working with Network Rail to try to double to four tracks the line from London to Stansted and is examining how additional capacity on the West Coast Main Line could be used once freed up by the planned HS2 line.

And the county is tangling with the franchise system by lobbying to keep intercity services stopping at Stevenage on the East Coast Main Line.

Mason explains: "The new franchise sets a lower minimum of intercity trains stopping there. We want to keep links to the North and Midlands and there is potential risk of losing them, as Stevenage is so near London stopping trains there is an issue.

"We also want to see if Midland Mainline trains could call at St Albans, which has six million passengers a year but no intercity link."