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Railwatch 074 - December 1997

Bikes and trains - the way forward

By David Henshaw

The position of cyclepath charity Sustrans's attitude to disused rail lines has been seriously called into question over the past few months - with the possibility of a conflict of interest developing. There have been one or two cases of Sustrans removing surplus track.

Sustrans has signed a memorandum of understanding with RDS that may have major implications for sustainable transport in Britain but it is deeply disturbing to see track being lifted, including long-disused track that has never carried an official passenger train.

But that was exactly what I saw as I walked the length of the former Llanelli and Mynydd Mawr Railway (more recently the Cynheidre Colliery branch) in South Wales with Sustrans director John Grimshaw. Sustrans intends to turn the line into a cycle path.

It became apparent as contractors lifted the track that much of it was in excellent condition - many of the sleepers having been almost new when the last freight train ran through eight years ago. A testament, if nothing else, to the sheer waste associated with the wholesale destruction of the coal mining industry in the 1980s.

But today there is no pit, and consequently, the line has no viable future. Passenger-wise, it goes nowhere, and should Cynheidre ever reopen it looks feasible to remove coal via the nearby Cwmmawr branch, which is currently "mothballed".

The situation on the Frome-Radstock line where Sustrans was also due to begin lifting track, is very different. More than 20,000 people live close to the Radstock railhead and there are many options for new freight traffic.

Remarkably, it now looks as though South West Trains, of all people, might be interested in running passenger trains to Radstock. So Radstock to Waterloo via Salisbury might be viable, providing a third route to London for rail travellers in the Radstock and Bath area.

Great Western and South Wales & West have shown no interest in the Radstock branch, but SWT has.

Following the 8 September meeting with RDS, Sustrans has agreed to build its cyclepath on the long disused side of the formation (it was once mostly double track) and keep the rails intact for at least a year or two.

Elsewhere, of course, there are even more powerful cases for reopening lines belonging to Sustrans. It has vowed - and we have to take this on trust for the time being - to return trackbeds needed for public transport or freight use, on condition a parallel cycle route is constructed.

As it rightly points out, a cycle route is an essential feeder to a restored rail link. Thus, conflict is unlikely to arise at places such as Sandy, Bedfordshire, and Long Marston, near Stratford-upon-Avon, where a double track formation is available.

For Sustrans, a commercial railway line, taking freight or passenger traffic off the roads, is a better environmental option than a cycle path, but a "museum" railway is not - hence their reluctance to acquiesce where a steam railway has designs on a rail corridor.

But "formal" proposals will always take precedence over cycle use. According to John Grimshaw: "We've always taken the view that we are trying to assemble the old railway formations for modern transport usage. And in one sense, walking and cycling are a pragmatic way of reassembling these railway routes."

He goes on to explain, reasonably enough, that once the six figure sums have been promised for rail reinstatement, the cost of a new parallel cycle path would be insignificant. In fact, Sustrans has done a great deal of good by pouring resources, and a largely volunteer effort, into purchasing odd scraps of land to recreate rail corridors. When track reinstatement takes place, a debt of gratitude will be owed to Sustrans for simplifying the ownership situation.

One of John Grimshaw's greatest regrets is that he did not begin to acquire land sooner, before the Tory government pushed the Property Board into an orgy of asset fragmentation. He also points out that other groups, such as RDS, could have purchased key plots of land themselves.

With hindsight, it looks as though the RDS could have shown more commitment to rail reopenings in the wilderness years, when Margaret Thatcher worshipped the "Great Car Economy".

Hopefully, in the future, things will be rather different. If all goes according to plan, the remains of the former network will mostly be in the hands of a charity. But it is a charity with a commitment to rail travel, and something of a rail enthusiast at the helm. John Grimshaw helped to engineer the Ffestiniog Railway extension.

Sustrans is committed to encouraging cyclists to travel to and from their paths by rail, and they have negotiated funding for cycle paths right into stations.

"We hope," says Grimshaw, "to work with each of the rail operating companies to design and create quality routes into literally every station."

The Sustrans view is pragmatic: "Let's face it. From a rail development point of view, the most cost-effective thing we can do is to increase the number of passengers using the existing stations. That's probably of greater importance than opening new stations, as needed as those may be."

Initial contacts at the 8 September meeting were very encouraging, but will we be able to work together in the future?

John Grimshaw certainly hopes so. "I hope that with RDS and other similar organisations, there may be opportunities for joint working. There may be areas where we would have only bought a little bit of a railway and run the rest of our route on minor roads. RDS and others could say, "look Sustrans, it would be valuable if we could put together the whole of this line, even though we recognise it's not top priority, because it would be useful to keep the whole of this formation intact.'"

British transport planning, says Grimshaw, is 10 years behind the Continent, and over-confidence with oil supplies is largely to blame.

"Perhaps the greatest misfortune we had, after Beeching, was the 1973 oil crisis, which unfortunately coincided with us finding North Sea oil. Countries that didn't have oil had to use that crisis to start moving in a different direction. North Sea oil will be the cause of our losing out on a generation of transport planning. For us, the oil crisis was a warning that was completely ignored."

RDS has been presented with a unique opportunity. Sustrans is working towards almost identical objectives and is in agreement that rail should be reinstated wherever practical. RDS must now make up its mind which lines it wishes to see reinstated, and which would serve better as cycle routes to reach existing rail corridors. With firm aims and proposals, we can continue to work closely with Sustrans. Of course, it is hard to predict future patterns. Who would have predicted SWT''s interest in Radstock?

My real fear is that if we fail to move quickly, we'll miss the boat altogether, while more proactive organisations help to bring about the new era of sustainable transport.

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