Brechin’s Revenge on Beeching

What was disappointing about the half-century anniversary of Dr Beeching’s evil œuvre “The Reshaping of British Railways” wasn’t that comment and opinion was as divided as on the death of Margaret Thatcher and pushed it off the page (political bedfellows like the Daily Mail and Torygraph were at loggerheads) but the absence of lessons being drawn. Amidst much wringing of hands that he went too far and general agreement that the UK rail network needed investment and growth, nobody seemed to have much of a business plan laying out any how or why.

After posting this blog’s comments last week, this became doubly apparent at the 6th Scottish Rail Conference at the Carlton Hotel in Edinburgh on April 16th when all the right people from the Scottish Government (including the Transport Minister, Keith Brown), ScotRail, Network Rail, contractors, SPT, freight and long-distance operators, gathered to focus on, as Mackay-Hannah put it: “Edinburgh-Glasgow Improvement Programme projects and planning, delivery of the main build phase of the Borders Railway and challenges and opportunities… during the period from 2014 to 2019.”

Broad-based topics covered included “Building a Resilient and Sustainable Railway” and “Supply Chain and Smart Partnership”, as well as the now obligatorily upbeat “Growing Rail Use: Passengers, Freight and Added Value”. All good stuff for the insider trying to run a rail business and the anorak there to mingle with kin. But, in common with the commentary that greeted the Beeching anniversary, not much in the way of strategic thinking: no-one asked what our rail is for, whether it’s fit for real purpose and—other than tacking on of some new services in no discernible priority—how it all fits.

It’s not quite as bad as the emperor’s clothes but, with virtually everyone in Scotland from anoraks to the AA agreeing we need to grow rail services not even the Government seems to be asking hard questions like those above. We seem content to let various ginger groups and political pork barrel steer much of the investment and accept that Network Rail and long-distance services fixate on the network in England, serving the demographic-driven priorities of ten times as many English living in  twice our land area.

We have yet to get a clue.

It starts with High-Speed Rail. Anyone who is anyone in rail here is falling over themselves to get it past Manchester/Leeds and up to Scotland. Quite apart from the Treasury clutching the piggy bank close on this whether Scotland goes indy or not,  has anyone done a cost/benefit analysis on this? Apparently not. Here’s a fag-packet shot:

Let’s assume HS1 to Birmingham/Midlands (£16.3bn & by 2026) is a done deal and that the £18.2bn-and-rising HS2 to Manchester and Leeds will see the light of day this century. The UK government “has calculated that capital and operating costs of £59bn over a 67-year period would outstrip the predicted revenues of £33bn from the line, leaving £26bn to be funded by the taxpayer.” (F. Times)

Cross-border rail traffic is undoubtedly successful and growing but let’s keep things in perspective. Whether 25m English living north of Birmingham do make an economic case for HS2 or not, what chance MacHS? The problems taking any HS3 to Scotland’s Central Belt seem daunting, even if the finance isn’t. How can 5m people currently taking only 3.5m journeys each year, paying £100m between them to cross the border justify a third step? High Speed rail comes in at £130m per mile to build. Even ignoring the nightmare geography of Shap and Beattock, that means £56.3bn to connect Manchester with Glasgow. The conference discussed this project as if it were feasible; it’s fantasy.

Do the sums: get real.

Not only would MacHS be blinding white as an elephant but we haven’t been very good with the money we’ve spent so far on our spiffy new services internal to Scotland that everyone’s so proud of. Not to put any of the projects down or to imply they may not provide a self-funding component of our rail network long-term, but compare those projects already completed and committed against Portishead-Bristol costing £3.8m per mile and an entire new HST station in Leeds costing £161m

  • Stirling-Alloa cost us £6.7m/mile (predicted use: 150k; actual use in 2012: 401k)
  • Borders will cost £10m/mile (predicted use now 640k, down from 947k)
  • Airdrie-Bathgate cost £12m/mile, (not all new track; now 200k @new stations, plus 300k more @existing stations between Central & Waverley)
  • Waverley station revamp cost £58m for 3 new platforms (16.2m to 22.6m passenger growth in the 5 years that the project has run)

On top of these major (i.e. 7-figure+) projects, there have been several reopened stations, most recently Laurencekirk and Conon Bridge but, welcome though they are, none can be considered a strategic step forward in rail improvement and usage.

What we have had—and is not to be sniffed at—is a steady investment in rail in Scotland that has increased and improved both facilities and services. But, as you can see for the above list, we may have paid rather more then we should have and have swept few people from their cars and onto rail, except those who discovered they now had a station close to home or work or both.

Because some of the choices made have been questionable at best and cuckoo at worst. For thirty years, ECC has been building Edinburgh Park and the Gyle and yet the stations so named are each a half mile from the centre of their namesake and neither have fast services stopping, if only at commuter times. The ‘fast’ Waverley-Queen Street services stop at Croy, Falkirk High and Linlithgow but only the last has bus connections worthy of the name. There is much investment and service revamp on the eastern side of Glasgow but all of it is for slow commuter services, including the Helensburgh-Waverley service via the new Airdrie-Bathgate link. Because it has 21 stops between the cities, it takes longer than the infamous ‘Fauldhouse, Whorehouse & Boot Hill’ line’s 90 minutes.

Where, in short, is the beef?

Why are there NO premier services? Is it any wonder that little use is made of the business class (on those trains that have them) or that ScotRail is given major grief for being so tardy in supplying WiFi and sockets. In Germany and France, major amounts of business travel are done by rail, business even being conducted en route. Since we won’t get HS3 (see above) why has nothing been done about our internal express routes? Prime contender for such has to be the the Glasgow-Stirling-Perth-Aberdeen corridor, which is currently a 3-hour ordeal in eternally crowded and poky Class 170 3-car sets. The 145 mile journey can be made at least half an hour faster by road—not least because of the £1bn+ already spent on dualling the M80, A9 and A90.

Let’s contrast this with Cardiff-London (also, co-incidentally, run by First). They seem to make the same distance in just over 2 hours but in the comfort of a 9-car 225 train with restaurant, extensive first class and WiFi, such as we only ever see on East Coast. We should focus on this scale of service for our ‘backbone’ line.

Trains out of Glasgow currently take an hour to reach Perth, 60 miles away. It then takes them another 70 minutes to cover the 40 miles to Laurencekirk and 40 more minutes to cover the final 30 miles to Aberdeen. A speed of 35 mph is that of a bad train, not an express. Examine the 150 miles of track and there are several choke points, the three main ones being the Cowlairs tunnel, the tight curves east of Perth and (worst of all) the five miles of single track south of Montrose. The first of those needs to be fixed to improve all services in and out of Queen Street as part of EGIP, so that’s in hand.

The other two can be solved by a radical idea: reinstate the Caledonian Railway. Part of Beeching’s folly was to rip up 35 miles of the old main line from north of Perth to Brechin and think that the secondary link via Dundee, with its myriad stations, twisting track and several grades can sustain fast service. From Kinclaven, there are 35 miles of track to reinstate until it regains the existing line east of Brechin. At the standard rate of £4m per mile, an investment of  £140m (half of Borders rail costs)  could cut this section journey time to under 30 minutes and put Aberdeen within two hours. A further £10m could add a fleet of second-hand Voyager 5-car trains—although those leeches the Roscos make actual train purchase costs as obscure as they can so real price is fuzzy.

Whether it is cost-effective to reinstate stations at Coupar Angus, Forfar and Brechin is a separate analysis—as is whether 9- car 225s (like East Coast’s) or 5-car Voyagers (like Virgin’s) should be used on the route. But there are currently 40,000 people flying from Glasgow to Aberdeen, most of them business travellers paying £270 for booking a week ahead and £330 for that day. Move 25% of them onto rail by offering tickets at half that and you have a £1.5m revenue boost for the line before you even start to consider on-board catering profits.

Additionally, the A90 south of Aberdeen carries almost 2,500 vehicles per hour each way at its peak, which translates into 2m each year. Many are not cars or not Aberdeen-bound but at least half are. If 10% were shifted onto rail (and offering half-hour improvement vs a half-hour penalty for taking the train is a big incentive) you would add another £6m revenue at current average fare. Add the two together and you could fund the borrowing of over £100m of the £150m necessary to make the step change feasible. £50m shortfall from the public purse is £10 per head—a lot less than the £200 each of us paid for trams.

It is an axiom among English train operators that long-distance lines are where the profits are and they consider London-Birmingham’s 105 miles as ‘long distance’. Yet Scotland seems determined to throw money at pork-barrel projects that favour this or that MSP’s back yard. For a real future for Scotland’s rail through the knock-on effect of such a service a key service, that tenner would buy us all:

  • 2-hour journey times Glasgow-Aberdeen (1-hour Perth-Aberdeen)
  • 1-hour frequency, with stops at Stirling, Perth and Brechin as interchanges
  • Similar times from Edinburgh if EGIP allowed Edinburgh-Stirling non-stop express
  • Three new stations at towns likely to sustain them
  • New Angus Circle line Perth-Dundee-Arbroath-Montrose-Brechin (Interchange?)-Forfar-Coupar Angus-Perth. (No longer required to pretend to be fast)

Not only would the grossly underused stations at Stirling and Perth receive a massive boost (as would the cities themselves) but the services radiating out from them would offer faster access to Scotland’s other five cities. There is nothing wrong with piddling about with dualling parts of the Highland Line but its 120 miles are never going to give a faster service than air, nor its passenger density justify much. By all means let’s link Leven back onto the network because the track’s already there, as it is at Grangemouth.

But, before we go stupidly dissipating another £1bn on ill-considered transport idiocy like the Edinburgh trams or overpay for projects because we let them drift for a decade, like the Borders Rail, let’s put Scotland on the business map by running a railway that means business and not just what clapped-out 2-car dinosaur ScotRail thinks will do for that day to fulfill its franchise obligations.

A tenner a head for revolutionising our railways seems like a deal.

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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5 Responses to Brechin’s Revenge on Beeching

  1. Doubting Thomas says:

    You might cast a nod to the possibility of a new line across the Dornoch Firth and then via Dornoch to the Mound. It would benefit relatively few in comparison to the other possible projects but it would give a disproportionately to the Northern Highlands and Orkney by cutting both distance and time between Inverness and the far North for passengers and potentially freight.

    • davidsberry says:

      Fair comment. Cutting out the Lairg loop would slice best part of an hour off the 3+ hour Inverness-Caithness time and add Dornoch to the net. But at a cost over £100m (two serious bridges and 6-8 miles of bumpy country) plus the resistance of most of the rest of Sutherland which uses Lairg as a railhead.

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  3. Scott says:

    I like your thinking, re the Strathmore line, however the Caledonian route between Aberdeen to Perth did not call at Brechin. It left the east coast route at Kinnaber Junction and then headed for Forfar, and thence Perth through Strathmore, from the junction at Bridge of Dun.

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