I recently bought a sandwich in Marks and Spencer in Cowes and, as I left the building, noticed something I’ve never spotted before. A plaque on the wall, reminding the eagle eyed that here long ago once stood a railway station. In search of lunch in normal times, I’ll often visit ‘Off the Rails’ in Yarmouth. Before it became a great place to eat, beautifully restored in 2014, that too was a railway station. It looks for all the world as if it’s still a 1950s station building. But for the missing track, you almost expect to see a train arrive at any moment. Sitting at a platform table you find yourself wishing the trains still ran to Freshwater, and to Cowes, Newport and Ventnor too.
In the ‘60s, Dr Beeching oversaw the destruction of Britain’s railway network. With the benefit of hindsight, that was a catastrophe, as was the later creation of Railtrack Plc, the privatised company that took on ownership of the track, buildings and infrastructure when the Tories privatised British Rail (BR). Several businessmen friends urged me to buy shares when Railtrack floated on the Stock Exchange in 1996, not because they had any interest in railways, but because they knew that Railtrack would acquire lots of prime development sites around the country. I didn’t actually have any money, but those investors had correctly realised that much of BR’s land, station buildings, sidings and redundant goods yards could be sold off. Think about the last time you travelled by train. Even now as you pass through any town or arrive at the London terminals, you’ll see acres of disused track and sidings. BR owned hundreds of old freight sheds and workshops too. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s still enough surplus land dotted around our railways to solve the housing crisis without ever disturbing the countryside.
In 1996 no-one seemed at all concerned that there may be a conflict between a company being run for maximum profit and a public service obligation to maintain a railway. Sound familiar? Railtrack initially made investment promises to its regulator and great profits for investors but was eventually found to have ‘abused its monopoly position.’ The investment in track wasn’t close to what it needed to be, and the regulator consistently failed to persuade them to spend the money. After some terrible accidents, Railtrack was renationalised in 2002.
I’ve always loved railways and use them for mainland and European travel, but I don’t remember tired old BR with much affection. I believe in public transport and should have been delighted to see the newly refurbished trains arriving on the Island. Unfortunately, as the low-loader carrying the first repainted carriage emerged from the ferry, there was our gurning MP, who inevitably turned up at the photo-op claiming full credit for everything. Of course, that bit was nauseating, but mostly I felt deflated because this feels like a huge opportunity missed.
No government has ever properly invested in Britain’s railways. The only services they care about are the well-used commuter routes, the rest of the network they see as a liability. Railways consume huge sums of public money. Even our new ‘investment’ in old trains and repaired track is an eye watering £26 million, plus around £3 million annually to run the trains, which are rented or leased.
We can only hope they perform better than the floating bridge, but where’s the joy in a railway that runs only from Wightlink’s Ryde pier to Shanklin when we need a whole Island network? That would have been something to shout about!