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On the line once again: the Settle-Carlisle railway

Friday 26 September 2003

Our country commentator John Sheard examines the long struggle to keep the Settle-Carlisle railway open - and wonders if, once again, it is under threat of death by a thousand cuts

QUITE frankly, I can't remember when I started writing about the Settle-Carlisle railway line. Was it when Dr Beeching started wielding the axe which destroyed our rail "net work" back in the 1960s - or before?

The Settle-Carlisle: at risk again?

It was certainly a hot topic 20 years ago, when the nationalised British Rail desperately wanted to close it down - and even lied in its evidence to a public enquiry about the cost of maintaining the wonderful Ribblehead Viaduct, which some believe ranks with the pyramids as a landmark in the history of human ingenuity.

That wheeze was rumbled by the enquiry and the line stayed open, much to the delight of the rail enthusiasts who had campaigned to save it, the tourist industry of the Dales, and the commuters to whom it is a priceless link to Leeds and Bradford.

Sadly, the future of this engineering masterpiece is under threat again this week with the announcement that the Strategic Railway Authority wants to cut some £5 billion from its track maintenance budget, which in itself is an alarming prospect considering how many people the railways have killed in recent years.

But the sting in the tail for Dales folk is that the vast majority of those savings, if the Government approves them, will be made on so-called "rural lines." For us, that means the links from the West Yorkshire cities via the Airedale line to Skipton - which feeds the Settle-Carlisle - and the Wharfedale line to the commuter towns in the Wharfe Valley.

The London commuter lines will, of course, remain untouched - but it was ever thus. The North, and the rural North in particular, always gets the short end of the stick when in comes to infrastructure investment, whatever colour the government.

But here, I see looming a test of wills between various Government departments and their ministers. For one of them - whether it is DEFRA or Transport - has got to renege of some of its most important promises.

No doubt Whitehall is desperate to forget this, but after the foot and mouth tragedy of two years ago, promises were made that, in future, all major government policy decisions were to be "rural proofed."

This ugly and clumsy phrase - typical civil service jargon - was supposed to mean that all major actions would be scrutinised to see if they would damage rural economic or social life. If this were a threat, the legislation would be modified so that it was countryside friendly.

So how would that play if maintenance work were slashed on the Settle-Carlisle, which is beginning to thrive as a central business corridor once again, with hopes that it will once again become the spine of Dales life?

Can Margaret Beckett, of DEFRA, take on Alistair Darling, of Transport, in a fair fight to ensure that promises are kept? Or, now that the Government billions poured into the public services have been sucked up in salary rises for civil servants, will that figure of £5 billion outweigh promises made to a few tens of thousands of country folk who probably don't vote Labour anyway?

This will be an interesting one to watch. But if I had to bet whether we in the Dales will get our fair share of the railway maintenance cake - or merely the crumbs from London's table - I know where my money would go.

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