The new Borders railway was Britain’s thirteenth new passenger line since 2000. It was the result of a long and sustained effort by the Campaign for Borders Rail and support from local Councils and the Scottish Government. Despite its low Benefit Cost Ratio (BCR) of 1.3, it was felt to be of great benefit to the local economy. Initial traffic figures support this view.
Borders was also Britain’s longest new domestic line for over a hundred years and will, no doubt, provide an impetus for other potential reopenings. On its website, the Campaign for Better Transport lists 216 proposals for new services on reopened lines or freight-only lines. Even the most ardent rail campaigner would accept these proposals can’t all be feasible, so there is a need for prioritisation.
Making the case
Transport projects seeking public funding require an appraisal. Department for Transport (DfT) guidance (or the equivalent in Scotland and Wales) specifies that this must first define the problem and then develop options considering all transport modes.
A new line can only be progressed if it is the best option and has a satisfactory business case which shows it to fit wider public policy objectives, offer value for money, be commercially viable and financially affordable. This is a similar process to the early stages of Network Rail’s guide to rail investment process (GRIP).
This business case derives a Benefit Cost Ratio and assesses benefits that can’t be quantified. BCRs are classified as poor (less than 1.0), low (1.0 to 1.5), medium (1.5 to 2.0), high (2.0 to 4.0) or very high (above 4.0). DfT guidance states that schemes with a high BCR are likely to be supported, some with a medium BCR might be acceptable and few with a low BCR would be supported. As with many railway decisions, there can be political considerations which may determine what constitutes an acceptable BCR.
Thus the first hurdle for any rail campaign group is to obtain political support, to convince the relevant authority to spend what is typically a high five-figure sum, on a report showing its proposal to be the best option with an acceptable business case.
Connecting English communities
In 2009, ATOC (Association of Train Operating Companies) published its report ‘Connecting Communities’. This showed potential new services by considering settlements of over 15,000 without a rail service with freight or disused lines. Scotland and Wales were excluded as rail strategies are considered by their respective devolved governments.
In contrast, the report noted that England had no national authority considering the local or regional need for rail capacity. To prevent this piecemeal development, ATOC called for the DfT to agree a more strategic approach to identify and safeguard promising routes to prevent encroachment from development.
It considered there was a positive business case for eight lines to be reopened (Borden, Fleetwood, Brownhills, Cranleigh, Ringwood, Washington, Skelmersdale and Wisbech) and for upgrading freight- only lines at Hythe, Aldridge, Ashington and between Leicester and Burton. It noted that all new lines built since 1995 exceeded their forecast demand.
The report also considered potential new lines which might offer strategic benefits by linking parts of the rail network. Lewes to Uckfield, Skipton to Colne and Oxford to Bletchley were considered to be feasible but their BCR was not evaluated.
Six years later
Following the 2009 ATOC report, construction has only been approved for one of its proposals. This is phase two of the East West Rail (EWR) route between Oxford and Cambridge. This includes a new double track railway on a mothballed freight line between Bicester and Bletchley. A 2010 Atkins report costed this scheme at £211 million with a very high 6.30 BCR. EWR is the only new line in Sir Peter Hendy’s report on Network Rail’s investment programme.
EWR phase one was completed in October 2015 with the construction of the Bicester chord for a Marylebone to Oxford service. The preferred EWR route between Bedford and Cambridge should be announced early in 2016.
Local authority funding is committed to develop four other schemes in the ATOC report. In July, Cambridge County Council published its GRIP 2 study on the March to Wisbech reopening, showing it to cost £99 million with a high 4.41 BCR. In October, as part of the £5 million that it has committed for detailed development, Northumberland County Council funded a Network Rail GRIP 2 study to upgrade the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne freight for a passenger service.
In June, Lancashire County Council announced that it would spend £1 million on a GRIP 3 study for a new three-mile line to Skelmersdale which would provide a service to Liverpool. This was five months after a Jacob’s report showed this would cost £250 million with a 1.9 BCR.
Upgrading the Portishead freight line for passenger services is now part of the MetroWest programme to improve local rail services across the West of England. North Somerset Council has approved the preliminary business case which costed the line at £58.2 million of which it has secured in principle £56.9 million, including £53.4 million of Government grants.
Outside the scope of the ATOC report, Transport for London’s Metropolitan line extension from Croxley to Watford Junction is expected to be completed by 2020, jointly funded by Hertfordshire County Council, DfT and Transport for London.
Other English contenders
Other schemes not mentioned in the ATOC report, for which there are strong campaigns, include the reopening of a 15-mile line to connect Haverhill and three other towns with Cambridge. With a population of 27,000, Haverhill in Suffolk is one of largest English towns without a railway station.
In Cumbria, a long running campaign to connect Keswick (population 5,000) with Penrith requires the reopening of a 16-mile new line. This is felt to be justified from its benefits to the Lake District National Park. However, following a 1996 pre-feasibility study, Cumbria County Council decided not to support the project.
Link lines for which there are campaigns include York to Beverley (30 miles), Buxton to Matlock (16 miles) and Harrogate to Thirsk (24 miles). These have yet to get support from their local councils.
Following the Dawlish blockage, the provision of alternative routes to Plymouth was considered in Network Rail’s West of Exeter route resilience study. This included reopening the 21-mile line from Okehampton to Bere Alston (£875 million, BCR 0.15) and the 15-mile line from Exeter to Newton Abbot via Bridford (£470 million, BCR of 0.30).
Although these low BCRs indicate the poor case for reopening long lines through sparsely populated countryside, they do not necessarily rule out the reopening of the Okehampton or Bridford lines. Against the background of rising sea levels from climate change, there is political pressure for an alternative to the Dawlish route for which the resilience study shows line reopenings are significantly less costly than a new route.
The campaign to provide Middlewich (population 14,000) with a rail service has a feasibility report with a 5.0 BCR. This requires a new station on the freight only single-line between Sandbach and Northwich for which Cheshire East Council has allocated a site in their local plan.
The most ambitious campaign website is that of BML2, which seeks political support for a second Brighton main line to London using the Lewes to Uckfield trackbed. This would connect with the existing line at a new Croydon gateway station and terminate at Stratford. BML2 acknowledges it would cost billions, but considers it to be the only solution for overcrowding between London, Sussex, and Surrey.
Rails for Wales
Further reopenings were considered in Wales after the success of the new Vale of Glamorgan and Ebbw Vale lines. Most of these were promoted by the South East Wales Transport Alliance (Sewta) of ten local Councils. In 2013, Jacobs prepared a report showing that Sewta’s proposed services in the South Wales valleys had BCRs as follows: Aberdare to Hirwaun – 3.2, Ystrad Mynach to Bedlinog – 4.6, Pontyclun to Beddau – 4.8 and Aberbeeg to Abertillery – 4.5.
Sewta was disbanded in 2014 as the Welsh Government took greater control of transport strategy. However, the 2015 Welsh national transport finance plan has no mention of any specific line reopenings, including those proposed by Sewta, and instead only commits to feasibility studies to reopen disused lines. This would seem to duplicate Sewta’s previous work rather than developing it further.
Beyond the valleys, there is a campaign to reopen the Aberystwyth to Carmarthen line for which the Welsh Government commissioned a study by AECOM. This was published in December and concluded that the cost of this line would be up to £750 million. It did not evaluate benefits but concluded that this reopening could have a poor BCR as the largest town on this 56-mile route, Lampeter, has a population of just 3,000. However, there is also a political dimension as this proposed line supports the Government’s objective of ‘improving links and access between key settlements and sites across Wales and strategically important all-Wales links’.
In North Wales, support for reopening the seven-mile line from Caernarfon to the Menai bridge includes the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railway (F&WHR) whose volunteers built the 26-mile narrow- gauge line between Porthmadog and Caernarfon for £28 million. F&WHR has drawn up draft plans and is reported to be keen to start another project.
In Anglesey, reopening the first 4.5 miles of the line to Llangefni was estimated to cost £25 million in a Network Rail feasibility study commissioned by the Welsh Government in 2010. Track remains in place and a preservation group is currently clearing vegetation.
Scotland’s strategic view
The Scottish Government published its Strategic Transport Projects Review (STPR) in 2008. This prioritised road and rail transport projects for strategic transport corridors. It excluded projects already approved or with only local impact.
It assessed over a hundred projects using Scottish Transport Appraisal Guidance (STAG).
This review set out the Scottish Government’s 29 transport priorities up to 2032 with the top four being: Forth replacement crossing, Edinburgh to Glasgow rail improvements programme (EGIP), Highland main line improvements and Aberdeen to Inverness rail improvements. It did not include any rail reopenings.
One reopening rejected by STPR was the Glasgow Crossrail scheme which proposed using a freight only line over the River Clyde. It concluded that, in isolation, it had a reasonable case but that it did not integrate well with other schemes or make best use of the rail network and that it would disadvantage many passengers by diverting them from the city centre stations.
New Scottish lines
The campaign to use a mothballed, five-mile freight line to provide a rail service to the Levenmouth area with a population of around 50,000 has attracted wide support. This stresses the benefits of a new service to the local economy – only 3% of those around Levenmouth work in Edinburgh compared with 22% in rail- connected Dunbar a similar distance away.
Fife Council is certainly convinced and has committed £2 million for this scheme. In November, Systra’s appraisal report concluded that there was a case for reopening. Endorsed by the Council, it has been formally submitted to Transport Scotland for approval.
StARLink is campaigning to re-open a five-mile line to Saint Andrews. This is a costlier re-opening as the line is dismantled with some obstructions. StARLink raised funds for a ‘high level report’ by Tata Steel in 2012 which estimated the cost would be £71 million.
Grangemouth (population 18,000) is Scotland’s largest container port and is connected to the rail network by a 2.5 mile line from Falkirk. For some time, the South East Scotland Transport Partnership had proposed a passenger service on this line. However, in 2010, this campaign fell at its first hurdle when Falkirk Council refused to cover half the £50,000 cost of the appraisal report.
In 2014, the North-East Scotland regional transport partnership commissioned the Fraserburgh and Peterhead to Aberdeen strategic transport study. One option being considered is reopening 55 miles of railway from Dyce through this area. With a price tag in the order of £700 million, its BCR is likely to be poor. However, there may be a case to reopen the first 13 miles to Ellon.
After the Borders reopening, there were calls to reopen the remaining 68 miles of the former Waverley route to Carlisle. With such popular interest the Scottish Government is undertaking a feasibility study. Campaign for Borders Rail (CBR) has a vision of a new double-track railway between Carlisle and Edinburgh as a new strategic rail route and considers the cost of such a route, including doubling the new Borders railway, would be in the region of £1 to 1.5 billion pounds.
It would be hard to justify such a huge sum. However, when CBR was launched in 1999, many thought the same about the proposed Borders line. It might be possible to justify a new Waverley route for strategic reasons. For example, if it could take freight off the West Coast main line in Scotland on which rising traffic will make it eventually untenable to mix passenger and freight services.
Britain has 536 miles of heritage railway which generally operate at 25 mph with often-unpaid staff. These lines were opened by railway preservation groups using volunteer labour, often with plant and materials obtained at favourable rates including donations of redundant material from the main line railway. Heritage railways running at low speeds also do not have to comply with many main line railway standards.
With significantly lower construction and operational costs, the case for new preserved lines is far more favourable than for reopening main lines. With generally infrequent timetables, heritage railways offer limited connectivity, yet as tourist attractions they make a valuable contribution to the local economy. There is scope for further such reopenings as shown by preservation groups at Caernarfon, Llangefni and Fleetwood.
Recipe for success
The unprecedented growth in rail travel might be thought to help the case for rail reopenings. Yet this is not necessarily the case as the priority is for funds to enhance the existing network and for HS2 to meet increasing demand. Also, some routes to terminal stations are overloaded and might not be able to cope with extra traffic from new feeder lines.
Readers of Rail Engineer know that new rail infrastructure is an expensive business, yet this is perhaps not fully appreciated outside the industry. To justify this cost, a reasonable amount of traffic is required. The Dawlish resilience study shows the poor case for reopening long rural routes without such traffic.
To be successful, rail campaigners need to be sure their proposed railway is affordable and offers sufficient local benefits. Typically, it would need to connect a town with a city using a short, unobstructed, disused line and operate as an extension of an existing service to minimise stock requirement and terminal capacity usage.
To demonstrate the business case for the proposal, the local authority needs to be convinced to fund an appraisal. This needs petitions, local engagement and a good website. Railfuture, which acts as an umbrella group, has various such campaigns on its website.
If the appraisal is successful, further development will cost millions, for which regional funding would be required. This level of funding has now been committed to the Ashington, Levenmouth, Portishead, Skelmersdale and Wisbech schemes as a result of effective committed campaigns and local Council support, much to the credit of all concerned.
Whether these lines go ahead is ultimately a Government funding decision, given the tens or hundreds of millions for any new line. However, with the current piecemeal approach to rail reopenings, these will be ad hoc decisions. As ATOC has observed, there is a need for a more strategic approach.