Trams, trains and…old railway maps?

This post is about public transport – much maligned and often complained about but without it I wouldn’t get far.

During my Cambridge-London commuting days I would spend the best part of £6,000 on bus, tube and train tickets in a year. A stupendous amount of money just to get to and from work in anyone’s book. Therefore I made it my business to buy “Modern Railways” magazine – not on the grounds that I’m a train spotter (I’m not) but more on the grounds that if I was going to spend six grand on trains and tubes, I was damn sure I was going to know what they were spending my hard earned cash on. As for train spotters, I think they’re great – because they are the eyes and ears of the wider general public and they keep an eye out for any bad stuff that may be happening.

While channel-surfing a few years ago I stumbled across a former civil servant who I was to find out is seen as the man who pretty much destroyed the old railway network that we once had – this being Dr Beeching. It was only when I looked into it that I found out the devastating impact that his reports had. The map of the New Adlestrop Railway Atlas (which has for some reason been zapped but I archived a copy ages ago so here’s one) visualises just how much of our old branch network we lost.

What is fascinating about this map in terms of our transport problems today is how some of the old branch lines (had they been preserved) could have been part of the solutions to the problems that we now have. However, a number have been destroyed or built on, and due to the huge rises in house prices over recent decades, the repurchase price of such land shoots out of the water many-a-business case.

So what now?

Some of you will be aware that the Liberal Democrats had in their manifesto for the 2010 election plans for a huge investment programme in the railways (& critiqued by Christian Wolmar soon after). At a local-to-me level, my MP Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) has been leaning on Theresa Villiers, Minister for the Railways on both the opening of a railway station at Chesterton, north Cambridge, and pressing for the reopening of the old Oxford to Cambridge line which is being developed by East-West Rail.

The point of the above-paragraph is that west and north of Cambridge, there is a significant amount of congestion on the roads – which is of no help to anyone. The recently-completed Cambridgeshire guided bus network (or “misguided bus”due to its delays, overspends and general screwups by a number of key players) should have some impact, but my personal preference over the years has been to get the old railway links back up and running as suggested by the Cambridge and St Ives Railway Organisation (CAST IRON). There are a number of obstacles in the way of getting a Cambridge-Huntingdon-Bedford-Sandy rail loop up and running – both physical barriers and lack of money, as well as barriers on electrifying the route between Cambridge and Norwich. (The diesel trains on that route are skanky and ‘orrible!) But it’s one of those “what if?” questions where I despair at the longterm foresight and imagination of our transport and planning world.

Fortunately, there are a few exceptions.

Lord Adonis showed some promise when taking over as Transport Secretary with his incognito journey across the rail network. (Hopefully he’ll continue to speak up for public transport in his new role at the Institute for Government). Christian Wolmar has continued his excellent work as the country’s top transport correspondent. There is also the splendid work on data mapping by Chris Osborne of ITO World who I met at #OpenTech c/o Sam Smith in May 2011. Osborne produced one of the best presentations on data mapping I’ve ever seen – the slides of which are here.

I’ve blogged about Cambridge mainly because I’m familiar with the place. There are lots of other places too where investment in our transport systems could have a huge positive impact on our towns and cities. Leeds and the since scrapped plans for the Supertram is one of them.

I’m interested in hearing about similar issues where you live – either where proposed transport investment in light/heavy rail or trams has fallen through, or where the creation of or re-opening of old railways could have a significant beneficial effect.

Have a look at the railway map at and see if you can spot old links that could/should be brought back into service.

The man behind the map is Richard Fairhurst – who I credit for making this amazing map available to so many people.


7 thoughts on “Trams, trains and…old railway maps?

  1. Very interesting post! As you say, many of the old lines would be perfect additions to a 21st century transport network. If only we had had the foresight (as they did in France) to cover the railway lines rather than pulling them up. But since when did British politicians deal in long-termism?

  2. To be fair though, although there were more lines pre-Beeching, passenger services were often not anything like as frequent as we expect them today. If the old lines were to be re-opened, it would probably have to mean a lot of investment in the existing lines and stations to increase capacity to run through onto them. That’s no reason not to invest necessarily, its just an issue to be aware of.

  3. Anyone with any appreciation for engineering loves railways but frankly the idea from FLAT.EARTH (CAST.IRON) that we could reopen the Huntingdon line as a railway is pure fantasy, expounded with a dose of economy with the actualité. Railway enthusiast James Strachan comments on their latest claim in a letter to the News.

    While the CGB has gone up in cost by a factor not unusual for public projects, the CAST.IRON scheme has gone up in estimates by orders of magnitude and is still a fantasy. They even claimed they’d just be able to use the old rails!

  4. Mmmmm, local rail was a nice old thing when it was around but practically zero chance of it making a come back. Very capital intensive to build new, and the original reason for their closure remains.

    Light rail does make sense in a large conurbation, the Manchester Metrolink is a very successful example.

    In non-metropolitan areas like Cambridge, the plain unfashionable coach and guided buses are actually the most cost effective and efficient way of moving large numbers of people. Doesn’t sound like the Cambridgeshire project has been particularly well managed, but transport projects seem to be rather cursed in the UK. There is a trend emerging, of providing high quality inter-urban coaches that connect towns/cities eg Oxford tube. These are often wifi enabled so people can work if they need to, and rather than the laborious national coach journeys – these focus on specific, high volume city to city connections and have been a huge success in South America.


  5. But, for example, that X5 coach to Oxford takes just over 3 hours. It’s a good service but at that journey time, slow and I would argue, not the most efficient way to travel between the two university cities. It’s nearly impossible to do a day trip. To do the same route by train means going into London.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s