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A return to Victorian levels of railway building?

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The Liberal Democrats argue that investing in Britain's railways should mean more than building new high-speed lines. By spending 'nearly £3 billion' to reopen 'thousands of miles of track' closed in the 1960s and earlier, they want to promote the 'biggest expansion' of the network since the Victorian age' to 'make our railway great again'.

The Liberal Democrats are right to draw attention to the potential for reopened lines and new stations to reduce carbon emissions and provide relief for congested roads. And there appears to be plenty of scope for reopenings. In 1950 the system was about 21,000 route miles long. This had shrunk to roughly 18,000 miles in 1961 when Dr Richard Beeching was appointed to modernise British Railways. By the mid-1970s the network stabilized at about 12,000 route-miles and 2000 stations.

But which lines should reopen? Rebuilding the Victorian network would be pointless. While historians still debate the merits of the Beeching modernisation programme, none argue that the railways of the mid-twentieth century was fit for purpose. Many lines were hopelessly uneconomic, even when the wider social benefits were counted. Today's social and economic geography is different again. We need a fresh look at what is desirable, possible and affordable.

Reopening railways is expensive, although the environmental and social returns can be large. Since 1995, 27 lines and 68 stations have opened, most being more heavily used than predicted. But £3 billion will not go very far. The Association of Train Operating Companies recently identified 14 lines which it says can be reopened at an estimated capital cost of around £520 million. This buys less than 150 route miles. The Liberal Democrats will have to cut a lot deeper into the roads budget to return to Victorian levels of railway building.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


See also 'Why put the brakes on high-speed rail?', Chris Bowlby's interview with Colin Divall in H&P's collaborative feature with BBC History Magazine.



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