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Straining trains: good news, bad news on the line

Friday 08 June 2007

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, who would travel more by train with great pleasure - if only they went where he wants to go - ponders the possibility that one day the Skipton-Colne railway line will re-open and restore a much-needed trans-Pennine route

THERE WAS good news and bad news last weekend for my favourite mode of overland travel, the railway. First came the news that no fewer than 61 MPs had signed a motion in favour of re-opening the once thriving Skipton-Colne line linking the Yorkshire Dales with the industrial North West.

Then came the results of one survey that showed that only 40% of rail passengers think they get value for money and another which suggests that it will be ten years at least before our railway system can be dragged into the 21st Century with longer, less crowded trains and the refurbished station platforms needed to accommodate them.

SELRAP train
Will the train take the strain on rural lines?
Photo: selrap.org.uk

That latter announcement came as no surprise to the cynic in me because it is almost exactly ten year since John Prescott took over the Government's transport brief and famously vowed that we could sack him if he hadn't built a "joined-up" transport system in the next decade.

Thankfully, Prescott is finally on his way out, having blatantly failed in this promise (amongst many others). But it means that if, and when, the country which invented railways finally gets a railway network we are worthy of, twenty long years will have gone by and our roads will be even closer to national gridlock.

Now I admit to a personal bias when it comes to the campaign to re-open the Skipton-Colne line which, to outsiders, must look an insignificant branch line between two small and economically un-important towns. In its heyday, however, it was a vital link between the two great powerhouses of the Industrial Revolution, the West Riding of Yorkshire and the cotton towns of the North West.

Until a few years ago, I regularly worked in Manchester and would have been delighted to go by train. But because the infamous Dr Beeching had axed those few miles of track in West Craven, that would have meant going east from Skipton to Leeds (which, at the time, had one of the filthiest station buffets I had ever seen) and then go back west to Manchester. There, I needed a taxi costing several pounds to get to the office.

Depending on the connection times, the journey could take two hours or more and - if my memory serves me correctly - the day return fare was some £17. Petrol was roughly £4 a gallon then and I would use three gallons for the return trip by road, plus £3 a day for parking. But most important of all, I could get from my front door to the office in almost exactly one hour.

So I was halving the time I spent travelling and had a superficial saving (counting petrol costs alone) of a fiver a day. Who could blame me - and there must be thousands like me in the same conundrum today - for saving both time and money by opting for the comfort of my own car?

it was a vital link between the two great powerhouses of the Industrial Revolution

Those days of commuting longish distances are, thankfully for me, long gone. My wife and I might get to Leeds for a day's shopping once or twice a year but generally we are happy to make most of our purchases here in the Yorkshire Dales.

But there are events in the North West which we would like to see, like the Lowry art gallery and the National War Museum on the newly re-developed Salford docks. And in Manchester's China Town are several of the best Chinese restaurants in Britain.

If we could get there by a quick train via Colne, we would do so on a fairly regular basis because the road traffic in Greater Manchester is now appalling. How many more are their like us in the Dales? And, even more vital for Dales business, how many people from the North West would make the opposite journey to enjoy our scenery, pubs and restaurants?

Trouble is, all the economic pointers in the UK are pointing downwards, thanks to Gordon Brown's spending spree over the past five years. Inflation is up, interest rates are up, bankruptcies are growing and billions have been wasted on faulty Government IT programmes.

Quite frankly, I can't see Government releasing extra cash to re-open railway lines like the Skipton-Colne in the next ten years, whatever political party is in power, despite their protestations that we must get more cars off the road. On this forecast, however, I would be delighted to be proved wrong.

  • For more information on the Skipton-Colne line, for pictures of the route, or to get involved in the campaign to re-open it visit www.selrap.org.uk

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