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Railwatch 073 - October 1997

Rough ride for rail

Several former rail routes which are to be converted into cycle tracks by the national cycle group Sustrans could make a comeback as railways.

Transport Minister Glenda Jackson gave an assurance in August that tracks could be relaid if there was a need. While the freehold of the trackbeds would be transferred to Sustrans by Rail Property Ltd (formerly the British Rail Property Board), the rights to operate trains would remain with the British Railways Board.

RDS is still worried that the prospects for rail schemes could be worsened by the existence of a cycle track and Sustrans did object to the reinstatement of rail services between Bodmin and Wenford which had been converted to a cycle track.

Having obtained the freehold, Sustrans may demand high rents from rail operators.

Sustrans will obviously do all it can to retain a cycle route alongside reopened lines but in some cases this may not be practical. Some rail schemes will need double tracks, like Walsall-Brownhills, and there may be no room for a cycle way.

The Government's own Planning and Policy Guide 13 urges local authorities to protect rail routes for reinstatement. It is also possible that some of the former routes may be needed for freight following changes to the rail freight grants.

Major changes to the rail industry - including the likely creation of a National Rail Authority - were unlikely to be introduced however until 1999, said Ms Jackson. One of the changes could be the inclusion of the rolling stock stock leasing companies into the regulatory structure.

RDS urged that the new strategic rail authority be given enough funding to bring to fruition a whole series of rail schemes. We made a strong case for the East-West rail link - on the Oxford-Cambridge axis - and we will judge the new authority on whether it is able to implement schemes like this.

At the moment Bedford Borough Council is standing in the way of the whole scheme by wanting a road on the old trackbed and insisting the railway should avoid the town! Bedford Commuters Association has provided the council with reasons why it is essential that the East-West link goes into Bedford Midland station.

The national benefits of the scheme have been recognised by most other councils and there were reports Railtrack was earmarking money.

The Minister was also told of other potential rail schemes like Stansted-Braintree and given a list of reopening schemes. But we were told there was no "pot of money" available from cancelled road schemes to be switched to rail. We reminded the minister that rail schemes were much better value for money. Often the funding gap amounted to just a few million pounds. By contrast one mile of new road in London cost £400 million.

The RDS delegation of president Michael Caton, executive officer Nat Taplin, parliamentary committee chairman David Bigg and vice chairman Ray King is hoping to see the minister again, before the transport White Paper is issued.

Soon after we met the Minister, the Government made its transport discussion paper public.

We presented two RDS reports to the minister, A Manifesto for Rail which was compiled by national executive member Mike Crowhurst and Getting Britain Moving - Protection of Abandoned Railway Routes by Peter Hayman.

Ms Jackson, who addressed the National Rail Users Conference in 1995, conceded that many of the crucial points to be included in the White Paper were covered by these two reports.

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