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Reversing Dr Beeching’s rail cuts a bridge too far?

Dr Beeching outlining his plans in the 1960s.
Dr Beeching outlining his plans in the 1960s.

It’s more than 50 years since Dr Beeching’s report was published, spelling the end for thousands of stations and hundreds of branch lines across Britain.

The civil servant from the Isle of Sheppey was recruited by the government from a very successful business career at ICI, to make the railways profitable again.

By the early 1960s the industry was bleeding millions of pounds a year.

His solution was simpleclose down the bits that lost the money.

The Beeching report recommended taking an axe to about a third of the network – 5,000 miles of track, including hundreds of branch lines, 2,363 stations and tens of thousands of jobs.

Instead, it would concentrate on the things trains did well. Fast journeys between the cities.

Improved bus services could replace branch lines, argued Dr Beeching.

And yet more than half a century after the publication of his explosive report, Beeching remains one of the most infamous names in British history.

Whereas the rise of the motor car was at least partially blamed for lessening use of the railways during the 1960s, it is ironically congestion on our roads and the rising costs of motoring, which bolster the environmental and economic arguments for getting more people and freight onto trains.

The return of trains to the Scottish Borders after 46 years with the opening of the longest new domestic railway built in Britain for over a century has certainly captured the imagination of the Tweedbank public. It’ll likely be a while before the novelty wears off.

But has the case for the re-establishment of rail links elsewhere been put on track, or is it an impractical and unviable nostalgia trip too far? The debate hasn’t been without controversy.

When a proposed direct rail link between Perth and Edinburgh was mooted a couple of years ago, Kinross-shire councillor Willie Robertson described the prospect as “completely mad” given that it could potentially see the demolition of houses if following the old route closed by Beeching.

In Fife, where Newburgh and Wormit rail halts have been mooted, critics of the long running St Andrews Rail Link (Starlink) campaign argue that the proposed £76 million costs to re-establish a link with the east coast mainline, 46 years after it closed, prohibit it. Sceptics also point out that where once there was a railway station there is now a car park. Where once steam trains puffed their way along the side of the Old Course there is now the five star Old Course Hotel, and most of the old route has been consumed by farmland.

For many of the students arriving at St Andrews University for freshers’ week over the weekend, it might have come as a surprise that a town of the size and status of St Andrews has no railway station of its own. A frequent bus service and plentiful supply of taxis ensure that no one is left stranded five miles away at Leuchars railway station for long.

But not surprisingly Starlink convener Jane Ann Liston, a former St Andrews Liberal Democrat Fife councillor, computer programmer and Mastermind contestant, who has been campaigning for 26 years, thinks the case for re-instatement is stronger than ever. A study carried out two years ago by Tata Steel Projects identified an alternative eight-kilometre route following the Eden Valley. An indicative timetable was produced, suggesting hourly services could be provided to Edinburgh and Dundee, taking one hour 19 minutes and 22 minutes respectively.

Last year the St Andrews campaign was endorsed by transport expert Lord Faulkner of Worcester. Railfuture Scotland’s vice-chairman, Roderick McDougall, a retired chartered engineer, included it in his list of 23 short branches he considers necessary to provide a fit-for-purpose Scottish rail network.

Ms Liston said: “It (the Borders campaign) shows that if 30 miles of railway can be laid, then so can the five miles needs to reconnect St Andrews.

“As an attractor of people, due to being a major tourist destination, economic generator, Home of Golf and Scotland’s oldest university town, the only one without a railway, St Andrews, with improved connectivity, could benefit the wider area with increased employment opportunities. Already, there are more inward commuters than outward.

“StARLink has taken the first step. The authorities must take the next.”

Campaigners for the Levenmouth rail link also think their case has been strengthened.

A revised Scottish Transport Appraisal Guidance report on the viability of bringing the railway back to Levenmouth is due to be published.

And locals are keeping their fingers crossed that the study will come down heavily on the side of re-opening the disused five-mile stretch of linea move which would see the largest urban concentration in Scotland without a rail link reconnected to the national network.

Like St Andrews, the estimated total cost is in the region of £76 million a snip, say campaigners, compared to the £300 million for the Borders railway and the £700+million spent on Edinburgh’s trams. Time will tell if the campaigns have enough steam to succeed.

The recommendations of the Strategic Transport Projects Review set out 29 investment priorities over the period to 2032 which the Scottish Government says will be delivered subject to the transport allocation within future spending reviews and affordability.

Although the Levenmouth scheme was not progressed as part of the STPR, the Scottish Government says it is willing to consider proposals for new services where a clear rationale has emerged from a Scottish Transport Appraisal Guidance (STAG) appraisal and where viability has been established through more detailed consideration, subject to affordability and other competing priorities.

However, the Scottish Government has no current plans to build the proposed St Andrews Rail Link. It says the responsibility to demonstrate the need for a new rail link to St Andrews lies with the promoters.

A Scottish Government spokesman said:“We are investing record levels in Scotland’s railways with our ambitious £5 billion package of improvements and new infrastructure.

“With improved connectivity already coming down the line from 2016, passengers in Fife will soon feel the benefit of the new Edinburgh Gateway major interchange which will open up more connections from Fife line services to Scotland’s capital and beyond. We have already provided extra Sunday services from West Fife to Edinburgh, upgraded Fife stations, and rolled out wifi on some Fife Circle trains and stations with more proposals to improve all aspects of the journey experience including frequency improvements and reductions in journey times across the Scottish network expected as part of the new Abellio Scotrail contract.

“Transport Scotland also continue to work with partners and other stakeholders to take forward the development and design of regionally promoted rail projects.”