Beeching and HS2, more in common than you think.

This week, The Daily Telegraph reported that rail tracks closed in the Beeching Axe will reopen thanks to HS2. The rail line in question is part of the Great Central Railway from Quainton to Brackley, but there was just one problem with saying HS2 will ‘reopen’ this line; it never actually closed, though it probably will as a result of HS2.

Whilst the furthest you can currently go as a passenger on Great Central is Aylesbury, goods trains still use that route. Two trains per day currently take waste for landfill from the London Borough of Hillingdon to landfill in Calvert, before trains go up to a remnant of the east-west ‘Varsity’ line to perform a three point turn before heading back. HS2 will effect this operation at both ends, and it is looking increasingly likely that the post-HS2 solution will be to make these transfers by road.

Whilst The Daily Telegraph mistakenly thinking the line is closed could be excusable, it was a view shared by HS2 Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Department for Transport when they first announced the Stage 1 plans in March 2010. The fact that DfT mandarins had to be told by local residents that a rail line they had classified as disused was actually still in use, is symptomatic of the lack of knowledge displayed by the increasingly bloated HS2 Ltd quango.

The worst part of this disjointed thinking is that without HS2 taking it over, Great Central could have a great future, providing an alternative route from Milton Keynes to London. With plans to reopen the East-West line, it would be simple to run trains along that line from Milton Keynes, which would then connect with Great Central and run into Marylebone via Aylesbury. Such a project would cheaply deliver the thing which HS2 does not, interconnectivity and local benefits.

The current plan is not for HS2 to use the Grand Central trackbed, but to skirt around it, constantly crossing the line, as HS2 is being engineered for a track speed on 250mph, meaning it has to be much straighter and wider than previous lines.

There are many other places where pro-HS2 spin has been geared to promote the project as ‘using old lines’, the most notable example on Stage 1 of the route, being the village of Burton Green. Burton Green lies on what was the Kenilworth-Berkswell cord, a line used to bypass Coventry station. This line was closed by Beeching in the same sort of flawed economics that is being used now to justify HS2. As the line was a four-mile bypass and it had no stations, it created no fare revenue, so as far as Beeching was concerned, that made it worthless. This flawed logic was what lead to the closure of heavily-used stations in seaside resorts. The stations were used by people going on holiday who bought return tickets when they set off from their home town, so as the resort towns did not create revenue from outgoing passengers, they were closed.

Burton Green, or more rightly the Cromwell Lane Bridge over the former line, which as a footpath is now known as the Kenilworth Greenway, was seen by HS2 Ltd engineers as the ‘eye of the needle’ they needed to thread the line through to reach Birmingham Airport whilst causing the minimum number home demolitions. The problem was that they had failed to realise that HS2 would be just a little bit wider than the old track, with the construction footprint being around ten times the current land use. While HS2 Ltd have been exceptionally coy about the number of homes which would be at risk, residents, using HS2 Ltds own data estimate around 40 houses are under threat.

The bottom line is that behind the spin of ‘re-using old lines’, only a quarter of a mile of the former line, the middle of the four mile footpath will be used, and it is the location which for Burton Green causes more devastation than any other option.

Now that Stage 2 has been announced, we are seeing this problem being repeated. In the spin factory, the Culcheth Linear Park, is another ‘former rail line which will be reopened’, but the reality is HS2 would simply cut across it twice, making it useless.

Another town which will have devastation of Burton Green proportions is Killamarsh in Derbyshire. Again, around 40 properties will be at risk as HS2 crosses a former railway line on the site of the former station. The wooden station building was recently sold for £1 and had been taken down for restoration and rebuilding as a museum, but that project like the one to reopen the Chesterfield Canal is now under doubt.

In this respect, HS2 will do exactly what Beeching did, devastate communities with dodgy economics, and fail to provide local benefits or connectivity, whilst deciding that the only thing worth having is faster inter-city travel.

One comment to “Beeching and HS2, more in common than you think.”
  1. Well ,Joe, fancy the Telegraph getting the story so wrong!

    But then your story, too, needs some correction.

    Before the announcement of Phase One of HS2 there was talk from the government spokesman of there being “a disused railway running between London and Birmingham…” Actually, no it didn’t.

    The Great Central turned north at Brackley and crossed the West Coast line at Rugby, before heading to Nottingham and Sheffield via Lutterworth, Leicester and Loughborough- and then finally to Manchester by way of the Woodhead trans Pennine route (Woodhead tunnel rebuilt post war) now abandoned.

    When the line closed as a through route in the summer of 1966, the track and remaining stations were demolished so that by 1969, when I first came to the area, little but the trackbed, stripped bare, remained between Rugby and Calvert.

    The remaining passenger service at the London end, originally operated by the Metropolitan Railway -and still a part of London Transport up to the late 1940s- is now run by Chiltern, with the electric Met. running as far as Amersham.

    As you say, beyond Aylesbury- or rather beyond Aylesbury Vale Parkway opened just a few years ago to serve large new housing developments north of the existing town, beyond that, the line has been reduced to a single track freight line.
    This is the part that still exists. It was originally retained to service the large Calvert brickworks and later and to the present day, for the “binliner” trains bringing urban waste from London and until recently, Bristol also, to fill the former clay pits now used for landfill.

    As a latecomer {1899}, the Great Central was both a much more modern line, but also a rival to earlier railways and therefore remained fairly isolated from other routes.
    Only in World War 2 was the strategic junction made at Calvert with the East West Oxford- Cambridge “Varsity Line”.

    Until Chiltern built the new depot at Aylesbury for servicing their “Turbo” train fleet, trains used to run, empty(!) to and from Bletchley to be serviced and refuelled, 30 Miles each way ,on the remains of the East West line, though very occasional shopping specials were run carrying paying customers to Milton Keynes, but for over a decade, now, the line east of Calvert and through Winslow has been abandoned.

    To set the record straight, the East -West Oxford-Cambridge line was not on Beeching”s list for closure. Rather, it was British Railways who insisted on shutting most of it despite earlier plans for it to become a freight bypass avoiding London. B.R. also ignored protests that towns such as Bedford, Winslow Milton Keynes and Bicester along the line, were all beginning huge planned expansion.

    Now, however, besides HS2, the East West line is being restored to double track from Oxford ,through Bicester, with a new connection to the existing Chiltern mainline, then on to Bedford via Milton Keynes, with a possible further extention later to Cambridge- all at considerable cost, putting back what should never have been lost!
    Also ,it is planned to extend Chiltern services north beyond Aylesbury Parkway to connect with the rebuilt East West at Calvert and restore the link to Milton Keynes.

    As for using more of the Great Central trackbed north as an alternative to the HS2, although Chiltern expressed a “long term aspiration” to extend north to a projected Parkway near Lutterworth and the M.1 /M.6 intersection, I doubt that we shall ever see that materialise, certainly not for many years especially as they have so many other developments in the pipeline.

    The opportunity to reopen the old route including the abandoned Grendon- Ashenden link to bypass Aylesbury and the Missendens was presented by the abortive Central Railway freight scheme proposed in the mid 1990s.
    Had this been given Government support and had it been developed to include a restored passenger service, then a fast modern electrified 125/ 140mph route could have supplied the extra track capacity that National Rail and Government insist we now require.
    As the route was largely intact, but mostly dismantled, a modern line could have been created, perhaps connecting with the West Coast near Rugby, and without totally disrupting the crowded existing services in the South East at the London end of the West Coast line, in contrast to the last attempt to upgrade amidst a line at near capacity and one which now needs urgent repair and track renewal .

    Is this alternative now beyond recall? Probably and with new land developments it becomes more difficult each year.

    So- the challenge. Did you oppose any such reopening scheme 20 years ago?

    Are you and we therefore responsible, at least in part, for HS2?

    Any comments please?

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