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How to expand our railways

Andrew Allen's picture

Building a new train station costs a fortune and takes an age. How can we make things quicker and easier so the worthwhile projects actually get built? We've just written a new guide which aims to do precisely this, helping good projects get on track.

Working with Railfuture and with support from the Department for Transport, Expanding the Railways takes local authorities, developers and communities through the process from having an initial idea for a rail project right through to running the first train.

Currently, it can be a very long and sometimes frustrating journey, but there are no shortage of projects aiming to add new stations, track and even whole lines to the network. Over 200 proposals are out there at various stages of development, from long-term dreams to those responding the pressing need.

So, why aren't more of them happening? Despite passenger numbers doubling in the last 20 years, only a handful of new or reopened stations have been added to the network since Beeching. You can count the number of lines which have reopened on the fingers of one hand.

While reopening an old station is an evocative idea, anyone with a passing knowledge of the railways will also be familiar with tales of high costs, delays and labyrinthine processes. Network Rail is generally fingered as the bad guy in all this. And while the organisation frequently doesn't help itself, it has many other things to spend its money on just to keep pace with demand on the existing network. Instead, the Government has made it clear that small-scale rail infrastructure improvements like new stations are primarily a local matter. However, local authorities have little formal involvement in the railways and few retain staff with any expertise of rail. 

And rail is complicated. Simply adding more lines and stations without strong evidence that they will attract new passengers risks leaving taxpayers to foot the bill. That's before you've looked at whether there are train services that could stop at the station, how people would get to there, whether any existing buildings are up to scratch and much else. 

As owner and manager of the railway, Network Rail decides which projects are strong enough to be added to the network through the GRIP process. Put bluntly, it currently takes years and costs a small fortune for a local authority to take a project through GRIP - and for much of that time it is not even clear if you have a viable scheme. Frankly, the process needs to be improved.

When faced with this prospect many local authorities simply give up and build a road instead. Just as depressingly, having invested large sums of money and time in a project others get trapped within the appropriately named GRIP process, paying for a series of expensive consultants reports in a frustrating attempt to move a project forward. 

This is where Expanding the Railways comes in. The new guide provides a step-by-step approach to developing a project, taking in GRIP but also looking at keeping control of costs, potential sources of funding, how to build support, when to go public and much else. Crucially, it encourages proponents to look dispassionately at their project - does it support jobs and the economy, is major new housing planned in the area? Will the train operator support it? Will it take people where they want to go? 

There are many locations where new rail projects could deliver major benefits to communities, the economy and the environment. Too few of them are currently happening. Our new guide is one step toward changing this. 

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