By Phil Marsh

Line reopenings – What needs to be considered?

Published: 17th April 2014

Case study for Marlborough to rejoin the national network

Capital cost

Many believe that because most of a former railway trackbed and structures remain untouched, reinstating a railway is a simple task. But after half a century of disuse, it is nearly as difficult as building a new railway, which in essence, it is.

Bridges and embankments built by the Victorians were not designed to withstand todays heavier, faster and more frequent trains which have harder suspension. This brings more stresses to the track and trackbed and for example, most structures on the East-West route will have to be rebuilt to carry trains after a bap of only 21 years.

Footpaths and other crossing points will need to be closed or upgraded to modern safety standards. This is mainly because of two reasons, faster, quieter and more frequent trains and misuse by non rail users who ignore warnings when crossing in cars, on bikes or walking.

Alternative to roads to generate new traffic

If the Marlborough branch line is reopened, it will have to provide a real alternative to local roads and adequate parking will need be provided at the new station.

If many people who would use the new line already travel from Swindon, Bedwyn Hungerford or Pewsey, then the rail industry will not see any revenue gain as the new station would abstract revenue from existing nearby stations.

BUT

If roads become less congested this is good for everybody, not just rail users. And if car park space is freed up at the neighbouring stations, then this would attract more passengers to them so the overall railway would see a revenue gain.

Regular and reliable

Any reinstated line will need to have a reliable, regular and fast service for a large timespan each day. For example an hourly service between 7am and 8pm with an average speed of say 30mph will not persuade passengers to use it. But a half hourly 70mph service will attract custom.

The East-West line will be between 90 and 100mph with frequent trains on double track and this will attract huge volumes of patronage. The Scottish Borders line project which reopens 32 miles of line between Edinburgh and Tweedbank will offer two trains an hour from 530am to midnight offering a real incentive to use the new line.

But, the project has scrimped on operational aspects with long stretches of single line which is more than likely to suffer from operating difficulties and consequential delays. Serious delays are inevitable if a train is held up by more than five minutes as it will have to wait for the long single sections to be available.

Train Operations

If a route between A and B takes 50 minutes and there are two trains an hour, you will require at least five trains to provide a service. This assumes that four trains will be in use at any one time and there is an operational spare for failures and maintenance cover.

Trains between Bedwyn and Paddington take about 75 minutes and generally shuttle between these two points and have a 10 minute turn-round time at Bedwyn. This is not sufficient to extend the service to Marlborough so more trains and staff would be required creating a new cost base. A new train carriage costs over a million pounds so this is not a cheap option.

Traincrew/staff

The same principle applies. You will need six drivers and five guards if the train is not worked under driver only operation. Why six? Because of rest days and assumes the service runs seven days a week and rosters allow a five day week to be worked and safety legislation prevents safety critical staff from working excessive hours or too many consecutive days. This was introduced after several bad accidents 30 years ago, notably at Clapham in London.

Ticketing

A new station will need a ticket office, most would argue. The worst thing that could happen is as with Wolverton station which cost over £3million two years ago and the train operator, London Midland only staff it for a few hours a day and the knock-on effect is that the retail units in the building are unlet.

Development Rights

Railway construction requires Planning Permission as with any development. Where a railway has never been legally closed, such as the East-West route, Network Rail is deemed to have ‘Permitted Development Rights’ which means they can rebuild the line without going through the planning process.

Where a line has been formally closed such as the Marlborough line, then Network Rail will have to apply for planning permission and satisfy all the objectors. Even on the East-West route between Bletchley and Bedford at Lidlington for example, which has trains running six days a week, locals have objected to having 100mph trains running and the railway has been operational since 1846 so lineside neighbours must be aware of this! So imagine the quantity objectors that a new line will bring in this day and age!

Local Authorities and the Department for Transport

If the local authorities support the scheme, then this is the first step. They then have to find the funding and even a simple line can cost over two million pounds a mile, which means a significant sum has to be found.

And its not the ground and trackworks that are the major cost either. The connection to the Great Western main line would need to be made and in railway engineering and signalling terms is not a difficult task, but hugely expensive as any major signalling alterations can cost millions.

Then trains will have to access the main line crossing both tracks 50% of the time. Train slots will have to be found to accommodate these and this will cause more congestion. This is why 10 years ago Didcot East Junction was improved and why Reading has had £850 million pounds spent on it over the last five years. Extra trains import more chance of delays so even a simple short line can affect services between London and Penzance.

Possibly it would be more difficult to convince the Department of Transport of the need for a new because they will need to support it and include train operations on it in a franchise agreement. And as we know, they do not have a good track record in this area over the last couple of years.

Prolonged active sensible long-term lobbying required

The East-West route and The Borders Line have been lobbied for by very active local communities for decades and funding approved by local authorities. The former gained approval because it will create an electrified link between the Great West, Chiltern, West Coast and Midland Main Line offering a mixture of local, regional express and long distance services plus freight capacity.

The latter because Transport Scotland does have a progressive policy towards rail re-openings but whether a five and a half mile branchline will pay its way and convince the authorities between Wiltshire and Westminster is another question.

They said

Local Marlborough MP, Mrs Perry said she would be contacting rail minister Stephen Hammond to discuss the proposal. “If I was the secretary of state for transport, I would say that £30 million was quite a lot of money for a relatively small town. However, there is an appetite in the department for post-Beeching reparations. I would be interested to test the water, and ascertain what hurdles we would have to jump to make a case.”

History

Marlborough joined the rail network in 1864 and had two stations linking the east-west route via Savernake and a north-south route running to Swindon and Andover from 1881. The town lost its passenger trains in 1961 with goods trains running for another three years when the line was closed.

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