Thursday, 27 November 2014

On a line to nowhere…

On the day I started writing this, there had been no trains from Birmingham to Stratford-upon-Avon for four days; and the ongoing grumbling over Chiltern Railways’ revision of their London-to-Stratford service seemed to have been going on for months – although, as an astute anonymous letter writer to the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald (20 November 2014) pointed out: “The majority of tourists travel in and out of Stratford either as part of a coach party or by car, probably hence the congestion everywhere.”

But that’s about as ‘green’ as David Cameron, isn’t it – i.e. capitalism at its typical, selfish, evolved worst? And, with nearly (or “at least” – depending on your greed) 11,000 homes pencilled in to be dumped on the (wrong parts of the) district by 2031 – even though logic would dictate just over half this number – surely it’s time we had a more joined-up public transport system?

Sadly, though, such a system would require some joined-up thinking – and the only thoughts driving (ahem) such issues at the moment appear to be of self-aggrandizement and profit – although it also seems that, atypically, the public purse is being left unopened – even if that purse is logarithmically tighter, the farther you get from London. On top of this, national government investment in (sensible and appropriate) large infrastructure projects is declining. So, common sense and localism would both appear to have died a nasty, excruciating death – probably joining the mountain of both animal and human roadkill mauled by the wheels and bumpers of illegally speeding vehicles tailgating and overtaking on blind bends and summits on our many twisting country lanes.

Apologies for tub-thumping bombastically like the worst sort of tabloid columnist: but, as someone who increasingly uses public transport – because of my (currently) intermittent and (hopefully, staying that way: at least until we have a better (more frequent, more targeted) bus service) occasional inability to drive – and believes that it is the most sustainable option (especially as – rather than “even though” – the district is largely rural: with many pockets of isolating poverty) – this is (and, to be honest, always has been) of great concern to me.

Infrastructure has always mattered. The industrial revolution was not just the story of cotton mills and iron foundries. It was about canals, railways and tarmacadam roads. Big changes to the way people and goods could move around the country boosted growth and transformed the economy.
     …there needs to be a recognition that the investment that matters is not always on prestige projects. As Stephenson proved 184 years ago [with the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway], it is sometimes the local schemes that make the difference.
– Larry Elliott: The Observer

After a public survey in 2011 that supported the redevelopment of the Avon Rail Link; two years ago (in October 2012), responding to an invitation to tender, a report by Ove Arup & Partners – Stratford to Honeybourne Railway Reinstatement – Business Case Study: seeking “to establish the feasibility of reinstating this link” – was presented to the Cabinet of Stratford-on-Avon District Council. A summary leaflet was also printed around this time, compiled by the Shakespeare Line Promotion Group – “which aims to promote travel along… the railway line between the City of Birmingham and Stratford-upon-Avon.”

Here are a few excerpts from the executive summary of the Arup report:

Since the old line to Honeybourne junction was closed in 1976, the Town has suffered from the lack of a rail connection to the east-west Cotswold Line (providing rail links to Oxford and Worcester) and onward to Cheltenham, Gloucester and the South-West. A further impetus for consideration of the reinstatement of the Stratford-Honeybourne link has been the significant growth in Cotswold Line traffic…. In a climate of national rail passenger traffic growth exceeding 7% p.a. and increasing awareness of the environmental sustainability arguments for rail, this Study was commissioned to examine the outline business case….
     …the rationale for the scheme would be to improve rail links, centred on Stratford, for local and regional demand, with potential to cater for longer distance movements…. There has been a long standing aspiration to improve the service between Stratford Upon Avon and Leamington Spa. Its provision as an extension to a Worcester to Stratford service was considered to have potential….
     The majority of benefits (almost 90%) are passenger time savings arising as the new line would provide a faster means of travel for existing rail passengers and those transferring from car. Movements between Worcester-Stratford, Evesham-Stratford and Stratford-Oxford provide the main sources of these benefits… (including reduced waiting time)….
     Additionally, there would be important economic benefits arising from rail freight, additional tourist spend and improved rail network resilience… especially when sections of the regional network are undergoing periodic maintenance….
     Overall, the results of the economic appraisal indicate that the Line is a promising candidate for reinstatement.

A later, more specific section on benefits adds:

To the extent that the new rail line generates more tourists, rather than a change in the choice of travel mode, it will contribute to additional indirect jobs. It will also provide a choice in travel mode for day visitors to the town, particularly those who live close to a station.
     A reopened Stratford-Long Marston-Honeybourne line could also attract heritage steam train services and visitors to/from the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway when the planned extension northwards from Broadway reaches Honeybourne.
     The Global Gathering music festival takes place at Long Marston Airfield and via Long Marston station, many of the 40,000 attendees would be able to utilise train services to and from this summer weekend gathering. Participants in other events at the Airfield could also use the train service. This would relieve traffic congestion on local roads.
     In addition, with the new line completed, it will be possible for travellers to make a round trip following the Snow Hill-Stratford on Avon-Worcester-Snow Hill route.

I am not quite sure what has happened to this proposal – as it does not appear in the council’s latest Schedule of Infrastructure Projects appendix to the Core Strategy (which is obviously biased towards the greenfield Gaydon Lighthorne Heath “masterplan”, rather than the alternative, more appropriate, brownfield Long Marston development) – although an “enhanced business case” was produced in June last year, which details reduced capital costs for reinstating the railway line.

However, as well as the Shakespeare Line Promotion Group’s keen and organized support, there is also some brief evidence of sporadic online opposition – but this leads with a designed-to-dismay picture of a level crossing for Evesham Road suggested in a previous, outdated report (Halcrow Fox, 1996): which its 2012 successor details as unfeasible (because of delays to traffic), and therefore recommends another, more appropriate route (videos here and here). This is actually acknowledged on another page of the NoAvonLine opposition site – which then, of course, goes on to raise new arguments, whilst leaving the old, irrelevant image in pride of place. (Oh, the joys of nimbyism.)

I am sure you can tell where my support lies – particularly between the Gaydon Lighthorne Heath and Long Marston Airfield developments – especially as I have previously made no secret of it. But I also feel that, to disregard the proposed railway line reinstatement would be to ignore (I nearly said “play fast and loose with”) a key solution to many of Stratford district’s transport (and other animal) ills. But, as I wrote above, this “would require some joined-up thinking” – especially with regards to public and private transport – and I haven’t seen much evidence of that recently in government circles (local, regional or national). But then, how would I: when current politics is all about the parallel finance and power races to the top, rather than serving the (few) people who elected you…?

This post was initially prompted (as you may have guessed from the photographs) by my habitual trek across one of my favourite local landmarks, Stannals Bridge: which I seem to be watching rust into the Avon. The immense craftsmanship of brickwork, steel, bolts and rivets is hard to ignore, but easy to admire. (It is a skewed or staggered girder, truss, or ‘open web through-type’ bridge – a design so successful, it continues to be built all over the world.)

I can no better voice my concerns for it than local resident David Goodman did, way back in 2001:

Previous governments sought to reduce the rail routes and to this end sanctioned the closure of even major links. This left the old trackbeds with no rails but much of the civil engineering infrastructure in place, for example, the bridges and embankments.
     Fortunately many of these were purchased by the local authority for use as cross-country recreational trails suitable for cyclists and walkers. However this left the local authority with a major problem – how were they to find the funding to maintain those bridges and embankments? Certainly their recreational budgets were not designed to cope with this kind of expenditure.
     Now comes a major problem. Today there is developing a need for these rail routes to be restored but until such time as firm plans to do this are in place whose responsibility is it to maintain the bridges and embankments for possible reuse – a reuse which, as far as the local authority is concerned, may never happen? You and I may well say that it will, but one can see the point of a local authority refusing to sanction such expenditure.
     There is a prime example of this near here where the old Great Western main rail route south of Stratford crosses the River Avon on the steel girder bridge, known as Stannals Bridge. It is the property now of Warwickshire County Council and is in dire need of maintenance. If it is left, it will fail and be a total loss. Minimal regular maintenance now could keep it in a fit state for the line to be restored at a future date but the funds required are being denied. Should this be so?

Although it is an utterly beautiful sculpture in its “increasingly rust-ridden” state; as a usable structure, I fear it will soon lose its integrity, and therefore its ability to provide safe passage – for pedestrians and cyclists, never mind a railway line. However, imagine traversing it, rebuilt or restored to its former glory (as is posited in Arup’s report), in a steam train, overlooking the river, on your way into “Shakespeare-on-Avon” station. What’s not to love?

And, with only a single line being proposed between Stratford and Long Marston’s existing freight depot (or maybe even as far as Honeybourne), there is a chance that you could still walk and cycle over it, as you do today. You might even have fewer cars to contend with, as you then explore the town centre.

Personally, I think reopening the line to a large, new residential development at Long Marston (and beyond) is a solution from the School of the Bleeding Obvious. Which means, of course, that it will never happen. What a shame. What a travesty. What a wasted opportunity…. Just wait for the Herald to run it as its lead story, though, when our town becomes completely gridlocked; and Stannals Bridge succumbs to neglect: crumbling into the Avon, and injuring some innocent, holidaying bargee.

No comments: