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Railwatch 074 - December 1997

MPs asked to back Railway Route Protection Bill

By Peter Hayman

The railway system needs to be expanded to give people the chance to use an environmentally friendly transport mode. But present planning procedures are inadequate to bring former railway trackbeds back into use even though many closed lines could now be economic to run.

As a first step, RDS wants to see disused trackbeds protected so that lines can be reopened as needed. We are appealing to MPs to introduce and pass a Railway Route Protection Bill to prevent further building on selected trackbeds.

At the same time, the expansion of the rail network can be encouraged by gradually equalising the subsidies paid to road and rail  - on a level playing field.

The closures of the 1950s and 1960s left strategic gaps in the rail network and isolated many sizeable towns. Yet there are 10,000 miles of closed railway route in existence, much of which could be brought back into use.

Three examples:

  • A strategic 90-mile route from East Anglia to the West could be provided by adding 15 miles of track to existing lines to link areas of high population growth such as Milton Keynes and Ipswich. Railtrack and the Government are currently considering a proposal costed at only £150 million.
  • Rebuilding 27 miles of the Waverley route from Edinburgh to Galashiels (population 13,000) would provide a railhead in the Borders and restore services to commuter towns such as Bonnyrigg (population 14,000) and Dalkeith (population 12,000).
  • Rebuilding 20 miles of track between Buxton and Matlock in the Peak District would provide access to the National Park and ease severe seasonal traffic congestion, and also give a direct route between the North-West and the East Midlands.

At the moment, protection of a route, which may go though many different local authority areas, is dependent on each authority including the route in its structure plan or unitary development plan.

As it is, developers are able to get planning permission to build on these routes.

Further problems arise from the fact that there are commercial pressures on currently disused land owned by Rail Property (the former British Rail Property Board) and Railtrack. Much of the ex-railway land is of major strategic importance including many significant potential rail junctions. Other ex-railway land includes land running alongside singled existing railways which may need to be restored to double track in the long run. A single line stretch of the London-Birmingham Chiltern Line is currently being restored to double track, for instance.

Badly sited buildings near trackbeds can cause problems. Various routes have had permanent structures built on them which would have left the rail corridor free if they had been positioned just one or two yards away. One example is at Cheltenham, where a Royal Mail building has been built close to the trackbed of the former Cheltenham-Stratford railway. The line is likely to reopen (being currently rebuilt privately) but the obstruction will add to the cost.

It should be emphasised that RDS is not seeking a complete reinstatement of all railway routes. We estimate that restoring just 25% of abandoned route mileage would provide a very good network.

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