Rail system booming despite prophecies of decline

Interactive rail map screenshot Image copyright CBT

A new interactive map has revealed how, against all the odds, the railways have witnessed a stratospheric revival in popularity in the past two decades.

Put together by the Campaign for Better Transport (CBT), it's measured all the people going into and out of 2,500 British stations since 1997-98.

Check out how your station is doing.

Twenty years ago, around the time the network was privatised, 1.45 billion clocked in and out. Last year, that figure had nearly doubled, to 2.75 billion.

The CBT also says:

  • some 686 stations now attract more than a million entries and exits each year, compared to 215 in 1997-98
  • last year, 85 stations attracted more than 5 million journeys, compared to 22 in 1997-98
  • some of the smaller stations, like Needham Market in Suffolk and Gowerton in Wales, have seen 13 and 17 fold increases in popularity respectively

The map also shows that growth has been uneven across Britain. London and the South East are booming. So are Leeds and Birmingham. But growth in Humberside's been thinner.

Fun train facts

Apropos of nothing other than giving you some good pub facts, here are some cracking things I read in Rail Magazine recently, based on a book called 'The Railways: Nation, Network and People' by Simon Bradley.

Did you know that:

  • before the railways, different bits of Britain worked to different times? But railway timetables and station clocks were all set to Greenwich Mean Time, eventually forcing a law that everyone use GMT
  • the railway meant that, for the first time, people ate food grown by people they didn't know and inland people could get fish?
  • horse racing owes its popularity to the railways? Before trains, horses had to be walked to courses, which kept everything small and local
  • the railways forced public hangings behind closed doors, because train excursions to go and watch became so popular

"Investment has tended to focus on relieving overcrowding in south east England, while leaving other parts of the country in a time warp," says the CBT's Andrew Allen.

"Our mapping shows areas which are strong candidates for growth and where targeted investment in better services and even new stations could make a real difference. The government needs to be braver, both in anticipating the potential for growth and in getting more places onto the network."

This rapid expansion has left parts of the system unable to cope.

Punctuality has been poor in recent years. We've got a Victorian network, ravaged by decades of underinvestment, which is only now being put right and is, understandably, struggling to squeeze in record numbers of people.

Tracking decline

No-one really saw this massive growth in numbers coming.

When the conservatives privatised the system twenty years ago, just about everyone assumed they were managing the decline of train travel.

And the rot set in a long time before that.

Image caption The BBC broadcast a sitcom in the 1990s based on the railway cuts proposed by Dr Beeching

More than 3,000 miles of track disappeared in the 1950s and the government still wanted to axe a lot more. The following decade, ministers asked a grey civil servant from the Isle of Sheppey, Dr Beeching, to come up with a blueprint for the future.

He recommended axing another third of the network - 5,000 miles of track, including hundreds of branch lines and 2,363 stations. It was assumed we'd all use cars instead.

But when I met him recently, the new chairman of Network Rail, Sir Peter Hendy was evangelical about the future. Money's going in. People are back. Services are better (mostly).

So it turns out that reports about the death of the train were greatly exaggerated.

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