I love travelling on railways. I enjoy chatting to strangers, having occasional naps, and most of all, watching the view. Anyone else who’s travelled north of Berwick where the train is ten metres from the beach or trundled around mountains on the open moorland of Caithness will know exactly what I’m talking about. Nonetheless, I […]

I love travelling on railways. I enjoy chatting to strangers, having occasional naps, and most of all, watching the view. Anyone else who’s travelled north of Berwick where the train is ten metres from the beach or trundled around mountains on the open moorland of Caithness will know exactly what I’m talking about.

Nonetheless, I often feel like there has never been a worse time to be a train traveller in the UK. We already knew we had the most expensive fares in Europe, yet 2012 began with a rise of up to 11% on some tickets. Despite these high prices, a recent report from Just Economics found that the UK railways were also the worst rated in Europe for comfort, speed and efficiency. On a recent journey to Suffolk, my train ticket cost £30 more than I’d have spent on petrol if I’d driven, I had to change three times, and missed connections meant I was two and a half hours late getting back. With overcrowded roads, carbon targets to meet, and ever more people travelling, it’s essential to get people out of their cars and onto public transport, but with a situation like we have, where’s the incentive?

The answer to all of these concerns (of course) is to build a brand new railway. Make it cool, and shiny and really, really fast, give it a flashy name like HS2, and everyone will be riding it. Except that it will have cost so much to build – around £32 billion – that it will take an extra lifetime to pay for. I can’t imagine how much the tickets will cost. And it won’t be reaching Sheffield until 2033. A child born today could finish university by the time it’s built. It also takes a lot of energy to move a train at 250mph. Published studies suggest that a high-speed rail journey may actually release more carbon than an equivalent flight. Add noise pollution and the destruction of countryside into the mix and this plan begins to look very poor indeed.

Here’s the clincher, though. How often do you travel to London? Sheffield is not a commuter town. If we needed to be in the capital all the time we’d move there. When I do travel to London, I’m always amazed by how quick the journey already is – currently 2 hours and 7 minutes. Compare that to a journey to Manchester, a place I need to get to regularly. The best you’ll manage is 51 minutes. London (as the crow flies) is 141 miles away; Manchester is 32. London is easy to get to already, but slow diesel trains that can’t even manage an average speed of 40mph connect two of the largest cities in the country.

With this on my mind, I was very interested to hear what some local campaigners had to say. There are many projects dedicated to reopening lines that could make a massive difference to people living in Northern cities at a fraction of the cost of HS2. The Woodhead line, which once provided the main route between Sheffield and Manchester, could be re-opened for as little as £150-350 million – not much for a railway! – and would reduce journey times between the two cities to a far more reasonable 35 minutes. What’s more, it would be more suitable for freight than the existing lines and could take many lorries off the road. Currently, 60% of traffic over the Woodhead pass is HGVs. This approach could also open up the Dark Peak area of the national park to visitors who are unable or unwilling to travel by car. But currently, campaigners are fighting to keep the future viability of the line alive, because the Woodhead tunnel on which the route is dependent is under significant threat from other uses.

Even closer to home, the Don Valley Railway group are campaigning to reopen the line that once ran between Stocksbridge and Sheffield Victoria station. Stocksbridge and its neighbour Deepcar are bustling communities on the edge of Sheffield with a combined population of over 30,000, yet are left cut off from the city by terrible transport links. Currently, it takes 42 minutes by bus to get to the city centre. The DVR plan is to open a half-hourly rail route that would take a mere 11 minutes to connect these communities to the city on affordable and environmentally friendly trains. Recent feasibility studies show that this could be delivered for a tiny £4.3 million using pre-existing track. Sheffield to London in 75 minutes would be fun, and occasionally quite handy. Stocksbridge to Sheffield in 11 minutes would change thousands of people’s lives every day for a fraction of the price. I know which one I would prefer.

savethewoodheadtunnel.blogspot.com
donvalleyrailway.org

Ben Eckersley.