It might seem churlish to complain that Gordon Brown has committed the necessary millions to electrify the Great Western main line from Bristol to London. After all, enough money has been spent on other parts of England, and beyond. But complain we do.
Our demand, for the past 30 years, has been for a Wessex-oriented transport system to link our principal cities without having to depend largely on routes directed towards London. An electrified Great Western is certainly not that. A glance at the Government’s map shows that electric trains will run from Paddington to Bristol and on to Swansea (amazing what a Welsh Assembly can achieve), with short stubs branching off to Newbury and to Oxford (how nice for the commuters and the dons). Trains from Plymouth to Bristol and Reading will remain diesel-hauled (but as the locals aren’t bankers and don’t as a rule vote Labour, no-one is going to care). Well, we do care. We care that our money is going into a scheme that is all about sucking the life out of ‘the provinces’ even faster. Why, in a sane, regionalised economy, would anyone want to go to London, the great casino that oversees our so-called wealth? If investment in spine rail routes is needed, why not Plymouth to Paddington or Exeter to Waterloo? Instead of which, an environmentally devastating dualling of the A303 trunk road is now made all the more likely so that Cornwall may compete with Wales.
Electrification too carries an environmental cost, green though its credentials can indeed be if the right renewable sources provide the power. Brunel’s railway is a masterpiece of design, so much so that the UK Government placed it on the tentative list of nominations to UNESCO for World Heritage status. Electrification will change the experiences that are Maidenhead Bridge, Sonning Cutting and Box Tunnel. Unavoidable change can be an opportunity for panache complementing Brunel’s own, and where this is so there need be no net loss. But British electrification schemes are not going to win design awards. In Sweden the supports for the overhead wires have been coloured green, so they blend in; ours are exposed, grey metal. Works of art they are not. So when the accountants’ butchery is complete, we may ask, what will be left of the line to meet UNESCO’s tests of ‘authenticity’ and ‘integrity’? Wessex tourism will lose out on yet another huge potential resource.
We are emphatically a pro-rail party, and for many sound reasons. Peak oil is the one that looms ever larger but there are other environmental and social gains along the way. Using rail investment to increase, rather than decrease our dependency on London is entirely the wrong priority. It won’t do for politicians to say that they’re ‘investing in success’ when they use public money to bolster a competitive advantage that London has built largely from previous injections of public money and the presence of the government of a unitary state and global empire. Getting a faster train to Paddington cannot be more important than getting one at all to Portishead. The list of Wessex towns now without stations is ridiculously long: Abingdon, Bideford, Blandford Forum, Bridport, Cheddar, Cirencester, Devizes, Dursley, Glastonbury, Gosport, Ilfracombe, Lyme Regis, Marlborough, Midsomer Norton/Radstock, Ringwood, Shepton Mallet, Sidmouth, Tavistock, Tiverton, Wantage, Wells and Wimborne are just a few. And then there are metro systems to be built for the Bristol and south Hampshire conurbations. Better rail connections for those who have them are bitter rail connections for those who don’t. The Government’s view – that it’s for local and regional interests to raise their own funding if they wish to supplement national priorities – should lead us to ask why national priorities are so heavily distorted in the first place and what we must do to alter them.
Technology is developing fast. The Parry People Mover is an electric rail vehicle using flywheel energy storage, recharging at stations, with no need for a continuous overhead or third-rail supply. Let’s concentrate for the foreseeable future on the basics, rigorously safeguarding abandoned trackbed and buildings. From there we can move forward to re-open those iconic lines like the Somerset & Dorset forming part of a sustainable transport system for the whole of Wessex, not just the favoured parts. The Scottish Parliament is busy re-opening 35 miles of the Waverley line south of Edinburgh, so let no-one tell you it’s a nice idea but it’ll never happen. It’ll happen alright, just as soon as Wessex has a Parliament too.