Gareth Huw Davies

Travel Blog

A new age of rural railways promises big benefits

bordersrail_timingtrain6As well as  building better defences against floods,  in response to the destructive storms of December 2015, the UK government, and the governments of Wales and Scotland, should consider building new railway lines.

Some of these lines would back up routes closed by the waters. There is one obvious candidate for a new link. Rail services between Glasgow Central and Carlisle were cancelled throughout January (2016) after a bridge at Lamington was “significantly damaged” by Storm Frank at Lockerbie. A replacement bus service or rail shuttle around the closed section adds around 90 minutes to the journey.

Reopening the remaining section of the new, partly-restored Borders Railway from Carlisle will provide another route into Scotland and an insurance against further  line closures, which now seem increasingly likely over coming years.

There is need for a  new railway in Devon, after  the closure in 2014 of the main London to Penzance line for several months  through storm damage. Scientists are predicting much more disruption from climate change.  There is still no firm decision on a long-term deviation. One suggested solution would be to reopen the line between Exeter and Plymouth, via Okehampton. Prime Mionister David Cameron has already said the route may be the most resilient alternative.

Other proposed reopenings would provide important backup links in other parts of the country if, or as seems increasingly likely when, yet more “exceptional” floods strike as a result of climate change, as scientists have been predicting.

One of the strongest current candidates  for reopening is the line between Carmarthen and Aberystwyth, axed in 1965 in the Beeching cuts.  There is currently no north – south railway in West Wales, and this route would offer another way through to mid Wales.  A sound financial and business case has already been made for this line. Its potential usefulness at times of bad weather (which includes heavy snow) is another argument in its favour.

Quite apart from the benefits as strategic transport links,  the economic, touristic  and environmental arguments for new lines are compelling. The latest figures from the new  Borders Railway, a 30 mile stretch of which opened south from Edinburgh in September 2015,  show  a big boost to tourism. The number of passengers on the new railway has considerably exceeded  expectation. There has been a 20 per cent rise in visitor numbers to some attractions.  According to VisitScotland, four out of five shops in one newly linked town, Galashiels, reported  a 100% increase in takings.

The Borders Railway has also given a big boost to what might simply be termed “observation tourism”, where people simply sit back and enjoy the passing countryside. Think of it as taking a short cruise on wheels.  Already there have been 17 sold out steam trains carrying 6,200 passengers between Edinburgh and Tweedbank.

Another  proposed reopening  with widespread support from politicians, businesses and local people is the Carmarthen to Aberystwyth railway.  Rebuilding the line  would cost around £500m,  Trains will be much faster than local buses, cutting journey times between the two towns to around 90 minutes. A scenic corner of Wales could be opened up to tourists, with benefits for local businesses  such as hotels, restaurants, pubs, craft shops and visitor attractions.