New age of the train: UK puts mothballed rail stations back on track
Long-forgotten railway lines prepare to reopen as passenger numbers surge
David Harrison was still clutching his mother’s hand the last time passenger trains passed his home, belching clouds of smoke heading for England’s south coast. He was not yet a teenager when the service shut down during a savage cost-cutting programme.
He now has silver hair, but Mr Harrison, a local politician, is on the brink of a famous victory to finally bring back the trains. After an absence of more than 50 years, officials are drawing up plans to restart a passenger service on the 10-kilometre line serving communities left behind by the UK’s transport revolution.
Mr Harrison’s campaign to reopen the Waterside line in Hampshire, southern England, is a small part of a broader change in British transport policy.
The government championed the return of rail services as part of its “levelling up” agenda, designed to improve the wealth of communities outside London where poor transport links affected investment and forced people to rely on their cars.
Mass car ownership that triggered the line’s demise close to Mr Harrison’s home led to frustration over congestion and pollution. Now the political pendulum has swung and a number of mothballed routes are being examined for possible reopening after decades of neglect.
The steam trains are gone but Mr Harrison’s ambition is to secure the UK’s first environmentally friendly hydrogen-powered train service for the service from Totton, on the outskirts of the port city of Southampton, to Fawley. But after a 55-year absence, diesel trains will do for now.
His optimism is driven by renewed enthusiasm for rail, with record passenger numbers, and a major reorganisation of the overcrowded and widely derided privatised rail system.
“It’s gone full circle,” said Mr Harrison, 64. “We have reached saturation point for cars and we have problems of air quality, congestion and car parking spaces.
“I think the government has come around to the idea that it actually makes good sense to make use of public transport – especially where there is existing infrastructure in place.”
From pioneering steam-powered trains and expanding its empire through building track, Britain’s cash-strapped state-run domestic services by the 1960s had become a source of national embarrassment. The cult of the car and a growing road haulage industry challenged rail’s supremacy.
Brought in to address losses of £100 million ($141.9m) a year, engineer Richard Beeching produced a seminal report in 1963 that called for the closure of dozens of loss-making lines, 8,000 kilometres of track and 2,363 stations, representing a third of the total.
The “Beeching Axe” allowed management of the nationalised network to focus on the main arterial routes between major cities that carried the most passengers but left rural communities without stations. Many of the bus services brought in to replace the trains withered through lack of use as Britons took to their cars.
Few policies had such a lasting impact as Beeching’s brutal cuts, which remain part of the current UK transport debate and were highlighted by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps last week.
“Transport is critical to levelling up,” said Mr Shapps in a speech at the Policy Exchange think tank. He cited multibillion-pound transport investment in the north of England since 2010 and the construction of HS2, a high-speed rail project to link London with northern cities such as Manchester and Leeds via Birmingham.
And, he said, “it’s why we are connecting towns stripped of their railway connections under the Beeching rail axe”.
Further proposed cuts were defeated in the 1970s, but rail campaigners say that a cross-party consensus to bring back old railway links is a new phenomenon as more passengers than ever before travel by train.
In 2020, more than 1.74 billion journeys were made on national rail services in the UK – double the number at the time of the Beeching cuts, according to data company Statista.
Major house-building programmes in isolated areas built an economic case for the revival of many branch lines after the UK population grew from 54 million in 1963 to nearly 67 million in 2021. On Mr Harrison’s proposed line, a proposed 1,500-home and retail project on the site of a former power station persuaded local planners to end their opposition to the reopening.
"This project is basically a no-brainer,” said Mark Miller, of Three Rivers Community Rail Partnership, which is behind the scheme. "It's been kept up to maintenance standards. All it needs is for a couple of the stations and level crossings to be upgraded and some signalling work.”
But the return of once-mothballed tracks has been slow. In the past 50 years, more than 400 stations and 800 kilometres of route were added to the network, a fraction of the numbers cut by Beeching, according to campaigning group Railfuture.
The group is helping local groups to apply for the re-opening of closed lines. “If you want to have successful public transport, it has to be rail,” said spokesman Bruce Williamson. “It’s the only way to attract people out of their cars – buses don’t cut it, frankly.”
For many, the revival is too late, with superstores and offices built on former railway land and the cost of rerouting too high. One government agency wants to concrete up crumbling train tunnels and bridges to reduce the cost of their upkeep, Railfuture says.
In some areas, the tracks have been ripped up to become cycleways – a policy also championed by the UK government as it seeks to burnish its green credentials before it hosts a major international climate summit later this year.
The old station at Holmsley in the heart of the New Forest, a beauty spot and tourism draw a 20-minute drive from Totton, was converted into a cafe a decade after its line was closed under the Beeching axe. The track was ripped up and a busy road now runs in front of the cafe.
“It’s so remote,” said owner Paul Jensen. “You can’t get anywhere, there’s no bus service, it’s too long a walk to the pub. For me, it doesn’t work.”
Many of the people who now visit are cyclists who use routes where trains used to run. Some return out of a sense of nostalgia.
“It was a lovely train station in its day,” said Catharine Adams, 24. “But it ended up being used mainly to pick up children for schools, and it just faded out.”
But on other lines, the return of regular train services can be achieved at relatively low cost. Mr Harrison believes a basic service on the Waterside line could be in place within five years at a cost of £15 million ($21.19 million).
The line first opened in 1925 and the tracks are still in place, allowing occasional freight deliveries to a military port and an oil refinery.
Senior rail officials joined a one-off passenger service in 2020 on the line – the first in 54 years – to demonstrate the viability of the project.
“If I was Boris Johnson and I asked my chief civil servants to look at a quick win – this would clearly be on my top 10 list,” Mr Harrison said. “It’s a project that could be brought about before his term ends.”
The UK last year announced a £500 million fund to develop ideas to reopen closed track and stations and urged local groups to apply. Twenty-five potential projects have been approved so far, including the Waterside line.
Mr Williamson said Railfuture was “cautiously optimistic” about the developments but said £500m would not go far.
“What is interesting is the way the political wind is blowing in reversing Beeching – before it would have been unthinkable but now it’s a popular rallying cry.
“But the person who lives in a town that used to have a station that was cut may have a long wait to get their railway back.”
The return of some branch lines is part of the latest rethink for a network that was privatised in the 1990s in an attempt to address continuing complaints about dirty and unreliable trains.
After years of complaints about a poor and fragmented service, the system was fatally damaged by a chaotic change to train timetables in 2018, which led to cancellations and delays. Tumbling revenues caused by Covid-19 delivered the final blow.
The UK announced last month a return to a centralised system run by a new body, Great British Railways, to replace the botched three-decade privatisation experiment, but it stops well short of nationalisation. It will set timetables and prices, sell tickets in England and manage rail infrastructure.
If Mr Harrison gets his way, the infrastructure will include upgrading the dilapidated Marchwood station on his Waterside Line and the ancient-looking railway signals outside the station.
“One of my earliest memories is crossing over a footbridge holding my mum’s hand and seeing the steam and smoke come up billowing all around me and being absolutely terrified.
“They weren’t the cleanest of things. But I do have a passion for trains generally. I think they are just a wonderful option.”
Updated: June 6, 2021 10:45 PM