Wednesday 8 December 2004

Trains? Who needs them?

There can be little doubt that one of the great success stories of the rail industry in recent years has been the small station at Alnmouth in Northumberland.

When I began commuting between London and Northumberland in the mid-1980s, there was one daytime through train in each direction, and a night sleeper service. Frequently the only vehicles in the car park belonged to me and Alan Beith.

Now there are four through London trains in each direction every day, plus a large number of useful connecting services serving other parts of the UK. Even after recent extensions to the car park, one can’t be sure of finding a space there much after 7.30 a.m.

And how does the rail industry respond to success like this? Why, exactly as it did in the 1960s, by looking at ways to undermine it.

The Strategic Rail Authority recently came up with the blinding revelation that the 17.30 from London usually runs 80pc empty north of Newcastle, so it might as well stop there. Even though it is the only through train of the day from London to Morpeth, and much the best way of getting back to Alnmouth if one has a day’s business in the capital.

Well, I’ve got news for them. Most of the trains from King’s Cross are less than packed north of Newcastle. And they’re less busy at Newcastle than they were at York or Doncaster, because more people get off there than get on. In fact, taking this argument to its logical conclusion, they could probably maximise train utilisation by just running a shuttle service between London and Peterborough.

That would be ludicrous, but only if one accepted the principle that trains are there to provide a public service, and I don’t believe this features very highly – if at all – in current thinking. Indeed this ‘thinking’ apparently hasn’t advanced one jot since the days of Dr Beeching, when the viability of stations was assessed by the number of tickets they sold rather than by the number of people wanting to go there. A fact which accounts for the large number of bustling British seaside resorts that have no rail connections. And which would, if applied to the Snowdon Mountain Railway, have led inexorably to the closure of the station at the summit.

One of the favoured tricks in the 1950s and 60s was to load the dice in favour of line closures by making large and unnecessary investments. One day perhaps The Journal’s daily nostalgic photo slot might feature the Rothbury branch, beautifully relaid with new, concrete-sleepered track shortly before it was closed and ripped up. New station signs and lights were another speciality.

Which brings me back to Alnmouth for Alnwick, as we must learn to call it after its recent renaming and £1 million makeover. Funnily enough, coming along just at the same time as the first, authenticated reports of service cuts. I’m glad to say I no longer commute to London, so no longer have a personal axe to grind.

But I feel sorry for anyone who was unfortunate enough to buy a house in the Alnmouth area on the strength of its good transport links.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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