In the UK today, we constantly hear about the massively expanding number of passengers – all supported by the statistical evidence. Whilst it would be true to say that the route mileage – well kilometres – was most drastically cut between 1965 and 1975, with just under 6,000 km disappearing, another 2,000km plus has gone since then.
From a total network of 24,012km in 1965, by 2015 this was cut to 15,799km – a 34% reduction – inevitably driven by the Beeching Plan.
Comparing these two 20-year periods, it is clear that little change in the network route mileage took place between 1985 and 2005, with the network reduced by only 942 miles. Also during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the last main line electrification on UK railways was completed – the East Coast Main Line.
At the same time, passenger stations have closed – yes I know there has been massive rebuilding for some – but the possibility of sending parcels and small goods by rail has almost disappeared. In the years between 1965 and 1985, 40% of all stations disappeared, and in the period between 1975 and 1985 67% of all freight stations ceased to exist.
At least, that’s what the ONS figures suggest.
Does this mean that more people are being crammed onto less distance, in shorter and less frequent services, with fewer stations, and fewer options?
The UK is still a major player in the rail technology arena, and electrification has, and is, a key part of the network’s success. In 1985, with 3,809 km of route electrified (23% of total route), the electrified routes grew by 1,500km by 2015 – it is now 34% of the total network. Within that 1,500km total, the completion of the ECML to Edinburgh in 1991 was a major highlight.
What about passenger and goods traffic?
Measured in terms of billions of tonne kilometres, goods travelled 25.2 billion tonne/km on British Rail in 1965. By 1985, this figure had fallen to 15.3 billion tonne/km – a reduction of 39% – whilst at the same time road freight had increased by 44%. Between 1965 and 1975, coastal shipping was still carrying a lot of freight, just slightly less than rail, but clearly the emphasis by successive governments over the decade and more to 1979 to give priority to road freight had taken its toll.
In 2012 there were 2,533 passenger stations listed by the DfT, and by 2016 this had risen to 2,557 as recorded by Steer, Davies & Gleave for the ORR. Details here: http://www.orr.gov.uk/statistics/published-stats/station-usage-estimates
On the face of it, this seems to suggest that 172 new stations have been added to the network since 1985. But maybe all is not what it seems. A report, published by Steer, Davies & Gleave for the ORR titled “Station Usage and Demand Forecasts for Newly Opened Railway Lines and Stations” in August 2010 makes for interesting reading. It states that since 1999, some 40 new stations were opened, during the ‘privatised’ era, and which on my count leaves 132 opened before 1999.
Clearly the ‘privatisation’ of the rail – at least the train operators – cannot be stated as responsible for these new stations, but there has been significant increase in demand for rail passenger services.
However, looking at some of the stations listed as ‘new’ depends on your definition. For example, the station at Alloa was opened in 2008, but is in fact a replacement for the station closed in 1980. The table lists those replaced, or reinstated as follows:
There are some quite clearly new stations in the list such as Luton Airport, Rhoose (for Cardiff Airport), and Braintree Freeport, but the majority are just re-opened.
More recently the ORR claimed 14 new stations opened in 2015/16 with 7 of these being stations previously operating on the old Waverley Route between Carlisle and Edinburgh, and now on the “Borders Railway”.
Image from ORR – “Estimates of Station Usage 2015-16”
Are We Getting Back to the Future?
It might be argued that despite the massive increases in passenger traffic, there has been much less in the way of freight transport increases, much less goods are carried by rail today than 40 years ago. There is limited development of distribution points beyond the core trunk routes, and logistics companies still prefer to transport small – 40 tonne lorry loads – over journeys of more than 200 km in the UK. In no small way is this supported by the many thousands of courier loads of small parcels, for which there is now no alternative but low-powered trucks, or articulated lorries.
Back 40 years ago, and more, we were less concerned about the environmental footprint of our key transport networks, and we sold off innovative technologies that we have now been forced to buy back, simply to meet passenger demand. Will the same be true of freight I wonder.
Are we there yet ?? Plenty of passenger traffic, new stations and even new lines, but little or no freight – the future for integrated transport looks decidedly bleak.