Committee member and Wessex Links Ltd director has just fired off this excellent letter to Justine Greening, Minister of Transport. Perhaps all of us that are desperate for the S&D to return should follow his example?
Rt Hon. Justine Greening MP
Secretary of State for Transport
Department for Transport
Great Minster House
33 Horseferry Road
SW1P 4DR 22 March 2012
Last week I had to make a round business trip to Bath from my home near Bournemouth. I was horrified to find that there was no satisfactory way of making this journey by train so I had to drive. The round trip took me five hours at an average speed of 31 mph. This slow progress was not just due to traffic density but mainly the fact that there is no decent road link along this common route. Apart form a few mainly single carriageway bypasses, the roads have not really changed since the Second World War. So I had to struggle over this increasingly third world road network filling the air with my expensive exhaust fumes; and yet one relatively simple solution sits there, apparently ignored.
Until the mid 1960’s there was an excellent rail service between Bournemouth and Bath/Bristol, the Somerset and Dorset Railway. This was one of the many lines closed by the now infamous Beeching cuts, despite the fact that it was a socially important and profitable main line.
Remarkably and fortunately, 95% of the old track bed still exists. Of course some of the bridges have been removed and small parts of the track bed have been built over but most of the civil engineering infrastructure is there and could easily be reused. Compared to grandiose controversial schemes like HS2 and motorway construction, the reinstatement of this railway would be relatively simple and cheap with enormous transport benefits. With the economic Armageddon of “peak oil” staring us in the face it is well established that the most energy efficient way of transporting goods and people is by electrically powered metal wheels on metal rails. Yet we grind on with our love affair of road transport whilst simultaneously penalising people for doing so via the tax system; and this is supposed to be a transport policy?
Incredibly, there is an organisation dedicated to the reinstatement of this valuable rail link, The New Somerset and Dorset Railway, and a holding company, Wessex Link Ltd, set up to administer this railway if it can be revived. Yet this is a tiny organisation with very small resources that would probably take decades to achieve its stated ends. We in this country do not have decades! The Prime Minister has already made it clear that he does not think our transport system is fit for the purposes of a 21st century competitive western economy and your colleague Norman Baker MP has publically stated that it is a well-established Liberal Democrat policy to reopen many old railway lines. Our inadequate transport system is starting to seriously hold us back economically just at the time when out economy needs all the help it can get.
Of course, not all the pre Beeching cuts lines needed to have been kept open, but many should have been and now desperately need to be reopened, including the Somerset and Dorset line. The project would obviously first require an engineering and business feasibility study, but whilst this is totally beyond the means of the embryonic New Somerset and Dorset Railway, this would be relatively small beer to the Department for Transport as well as falling under the remit of what the Department should be addressing.
I have seen you interviewed on television a few times in recent months and you have made some sensible, non-partisan decisions. Consequently I would urge you Minister, in contrast to the usual partisan slogans we have endured from previous governments, to initiate something that will make an impact and a huge practical difference to the lives and businesses of the people in Dorset, Somerset and Avon; look at reopening the Somerset and Dorset Railway, preferably in a time frame measurable in months rather than decades. We need it and, if we are to compete in the modern world, time is short.