Go back to the 1960s and if anyone was talking about sustainability (and very few were), railways would not have figured high on anyone’s list. What a difference fifty years makes. Today, we wring our hands with regret over that which was lost on the word of poor, vilified Dr Beeching, whose crime was, after all, only writing the report for which he was asked.
When peering the other way, into the future of Britain’s railways, it is hard to see beyond the £56 billion (estimated so far) behemoth of HS2, the first usable part of which will not be up and running until 2026. The final elements of the route will not be welcoming passengers until seven years after that, and passengers are all it will be welcoming. HS2’s own literature states that: “The HS2 infrastructure has not been designed to accommodate traditional slow/heavy rail freight services.” The Department for Transport estimates that 12 per cent of freight is moved by rail in the UK, compared to an average across Europe of more than 18 per cent and rising – the opposite of the UK trend. HS2, on its own, will almost certainly makes things worse and not better.
That risks missing smaller, cheaper ways to improve transport capacity, boosting the economies of the regions and reducing environmental damage. Take the GB Freight Route (GBFR) scheme. That is a project to create a “new” dedicated freight train route from London, through the Midlands and into Scotland with a spur for Wales. It would allow lorries to drive on and off with their loads, avoiding the current expensive and time-consuming practice of transferring goods from HGV to rail and back at the other end. It would follow 480 miles of existing or disused track with a requirement for only fourteen “virgin” miles along the whole route. Crucially, it would cost an estimated £6 billion, roughly 10 per cent of the HS2 budget and would take possibly five years to complete.