Apologies if you were looking for a posting on the Bowie back-catalogue, this one is about railway stations, or the lack of them. A commonly held view in 1976 when Bowie’s album of the same name was published was that the state was incapable of running an efficient railway. We have since experienced a privatised railway system which has proven itself to be equally flawed. This weekend, once again a Government has shown itself as the authors of an incoherent strategy on railway technology and planning.
The big news that began to leak out over the weekend and was announced this morning by the Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin and Chancellor George Osborne is the second phase of HS2 or High Speed 2. The Northern extension of HS2 from Birmingham has been expected for some time although commentators are far from unanimous that it will have the positive impact on cities such as Manchester or Leeds and Sheffield and on to Scotland that the Government is promising. One consequence of the announcement was the cries of foul from MPs whose constituencies will have HS2 tunnelled and cut through, yet who will not have a nearby station to benefit from this 21st Century railway system. These MPs might however be interested in the news that was announced by the Department for Transport on Thursday regarding the prospect of building new railway stations. It will not give them a great deal of practical satisfaction but perhaps a small stick to beat Patrick McLoughlin with should they wish to challenge his department for their failure to join up the dots.
Last weeks announcement was a minnow in comparison to the £32Bn HS2. The £20M fund is also a bit more limited in terms of the timescale. It is inevitable that HS2 will be argued over for many years and George Osborne will be well ensconced in the Lords before a single sleeper is laid in his Tatton constituency. In the meantime the offer of new stations appears to be something of a fire sale. If the aggrieved MPs or indeed any other local leaders want to get a new station for a railway track near them, they have a mere month to submit their ‘shovel ready’ plans for a share in the funds. According to the press release the DfT “recognise that local communities are often best placed to deliver their own transport solutions” but these plans “must be at an advanced stage of development and be supported by the relevant local authority, train operating companies and Network Rail. Successful applicants will also be required to provide at least 25% of the funding themselves.”
I have had some experience in attempting to work with Network Rail. In my case, trying to persuade them to consider an idea that would improve the sound quality of announcements on existing stations. I have seen first hand the complex relationship between Train Operating Companies (TOCs) and Network Rail. The precursor to this announcement was made in July so anyone planning to bid for some of the money has had a bit of warning. However it can take 6 months just to begin a discussion with Network Rail, let alone the time it takes to link discussions with TOC’s, Network Rail and Local Government. A quick search of the internet reveals that Ilkeston in Derbyshire is one such situation with plans for at least £6M worth of station. Having visited a location close to Ilkeston on several occasions I know that it would be a great help if they could benefit from a replacement for at least one of the 3 stations that once served the town. It may be that there are other communities that have shovel ready plans for such a station. Even if this is the case a month is an unrealistically short window within which to develop a meaningful response. If DfT are serious about localising their investment potential and they certainly need to, they cannot be allowed to act in such a cavalier manner.
Probably none of the MPs currently upset about HS2 will be able to bid for some of these funds, although Derby City was offering several Million Pounds of its money to persuade the route to go through this great railway city. We need boldness in planning our transport infrastructure, but we also need realism if the Government is going to persuade residents that they have any grasp of how to plan for the future.