The recent announcement of “Levelling Up” funding included a smattering of eclectic railway schemes, ranging across a spectrum from innovative and exciting to, frankly, bizarre.
Starting with the best, Phase 1 of Cardiff Crossrail, linking Cardiff Bay with Cardiff Central station, potentially improves city centre distribution and drives modal shift, making imaginative use of Tram-Train operation.
The new station at Willenhall, between Walsall and Wolverhampton also looks positive, improving accessibility for a deprived area, although I was surprised to see it on the list as I thought this had been authorised a couple of years ago. Governments have form in announcing the same project several times!
The two new bridges at Lincoln are also sensible, although this is really about relieving traffic congestion, not improving the rail network.
The infrastructure scheme to allow frequency at Belmont, between Sutton and Epsom Downs, to increase from two to four trains an hour in each direction seems a little strange. Passenger numbers at Belmont were only 157,000 in 2018/19 (the last full pre-pandemic year), yet other Greater London stations, particularly on South Western routes, have had long standing frequencies halved to two trains an hour, for example Mortlake, which saw 1.8 million passengers in the same year, ten times the Belmont numbers. Belmont’s upgrade is to “unlock the full potential of the London Cancer Hub”, although it doesn’t feel like an area which desperately needs levelling up.
The real humdinger in the list is Mid Cornwall Metro: “nearly £50 million to create a direct train service linking Newquay, St. Austell, Truro and Falmouth”. To anyone not familiar with the geography, at first glance this seems eminently reasonable. Cornwall is a depressed area and needs all the help it can get. However, if you look at a map, this is quite simply mad. By car, Newquay to Truro takes 25 minutes for a distance of 12.5 miles; there are also two regular bus routes, the faster of which takes 53 minutes. By contrast, the rail mileage is just under 40 miles, heading Eastwards to Par, where the notional through train would reverse before reaching St. Austell and, eventually, Truro then Falmouth.
While speeds on the St. Austell – Truro section are respectable, the Newquay branch is like a corkscrew; limited sections allow the dizzy speed of 50 mph but most of the route is much slower, with many speed restrictions of 25 or even 15 mph. The journey time for the 19 miles from Newquay to Par is 48 minutes, giving an average speed of less than 25 mph. This timing does of course allow for request stop at intermediate stations with evocative names like Luxulyan, Bugle and Quintrell Downs. The five local stations between them had a total of 17,000 passenger journeys in 2018/19, or 47 a day. This is not a Metro as I understand it!
In reality, the overwhelming use of the Newquay branch is by longer distance passengers travelling to and from the resort – it does now have a daily through service to Paddington in the summer, which accounts for the great majority of the c280 daily passengers at Newquay itself. There may be a case for a limited upgrade of the route to allow modest acceleration and a more frequent connecting service, with greater resilience. There are at present just eight trains a day each way – it used only to be six – so if your train from Bristol is late and misses its connection, you have a long wait, or if you are lucky Great Western will pay for the cost of a taxi.
There is a heretical alternative, for which I expect to be burnt at the stake. An hourly dedicated coach service between St. Austell and Newquay would be faster and cheaper to operate (maintaining 19 miles of railway does not come free). The journey time would be less than 40 minutes, so only two coaches would be required, and the service would also provide a fast direct public transport link between the two towns, sooner and at much less cost than the £50 million for Mid Cornwall Metro. However, the idea of providing higher quality and more cost effective road connections in place of any part of the rail network appears to be blasphemy.
Two thoughts prompted by the inclusion of this mad scheme as a levelling up winner. Firstly, there are serious questions about both the criteria for selecting winners and the rigour applied to reviewing submissions. Did the Department for Transport bless this scheme, or did it just look like a good idea for civil servants in the Department for Levelling Up? Secondly, if Mid Cornwall Metro can come through the process, it suggests that other local authorities are failing to identify much more worthwhile candidates – there must be opportunities here.
As I write this, the long running disputes between RMT and Network Rail and the Train Operating Companies, with the Government directly controlling both the money and the conditions of any deal, has gone silent since the latest “final offers” from the employers. No further industrial action has been scheduled, and RMT is being tight lipped about its views on the offers; it’s unclear whether its Executive will recommend acceptance, rejection, or sit on its hands. It may be that both sides have looked over the edge of the precipice and decided to back gingerly away. Certainly the government appears to have backed off an insistence on driver only operation – it seems this has been kicked into the long grass, for local discussion.
Booking office closures still seemed to be on the agenda, although now softened by a commitment to no compulsory redundancies for an extended period. Ministers talk in terms about getting staff from behind glass screens on to the station to help passengers more directly. If this is taken at face value – and it’s a big if – this could be a way of improving the perceived safety and security of the network and greatly improving access for the disabled. We shall see.
Meanwhile, ASLEF are taking strike action on the 1st and 3rd of February, which will bring most of the passenger network to a stand. Will this be the final spasm of industrial action for the time being or will ASLEF hold out for an increase much nearer to the current rate of inflation? This would get very sticky, with Government constantly stressing train drivers’ average earnings of around £60,000, leaving the media to make the comparison with nurses and teachers.
Photo credit: Paul Bigland.