Plan to revive UK rural railways gathers momentum

IN THE QUIET ticket office, under the half-moon windows of the ticket offices, a large green sign announces “OKEHAMPTON“in an empty room. On the platform, a faded poster says”DEVON” Train journey “. Those who have read it have had little chance to do so. The last passenger train left Okehampton on June 3, 1972. The town was in mourning: the mayor stood there, holding a wreath. On the line, between the ties, the grass began to grow.

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But Okehampton is changing. New steel tracks shine under the platform; the diggers are struggling in the parking lot. The station is being reopened as part of the government’s “Restore Your Railroad” fund, launched in January last year to keep a manifesto promise. The aim of the program is, as Transport Secretary Grant Shapps explained, “to reverse the catastrophic cuts to the rail network mainly carried out by the Beeching ax.” Some 141 offers were submitted; 25 were successful. Okehampton is the first to reopen. Eleven miles of track were laid with Brunellian vivacity in four weeks. The first train arrives on November 20 at 7:10 a.m.

In 1963, a report by Richard Beeching, Chairman of the British Railways Board, called for the closure of 5,000 miles of track and 2,363 stations. Even today, it is seen less as a piece of bureaucracy than as an act of “infamy”; his cuts “a wound that did not heal,” said Stewart Francis, former chairman of the Rail Passengers‘ Council. On the Beeching ‘injury’, Okehampton’s 11 miles of shiny new track is just sticky plaster.

But to see this in terms of pure numbers is to miss the point. More than ties and steel were lost. “Railways have a strange position in the British psyche,” says John Preston, professor of rail transport at the University of Southampton. “Many rural lines have disappeared which were emblematic of a way of life… for which there was a lot of nostalgia,” he notes.

The new line is less about crossing Devon than about time travel. Many infrastructures are prosaic. In Britain, trains became poetry, their lines not only crossing the country, but extending into the literature of Robert Louis Stevenson, John Betjeman and WH Auden. The restoration of the railways makes a nod to this fictitious England, a place of branches and straight lines, of railway carriers and station masters; an England stopped, like the train in Edward Thomas’ poem “Adlestrop”, at the end of June in national memory.

But poetry, while beautiful, has never been particularly profitable. It remains to be seen whether these lines will be. There could hardly be a worse time for their opening: During the first lockdown of covid-19, the number of passengers fell by around 90% and “the path of post-covid demand is not yet clear” Mr. Preston said. Yet in Okehampton, locals seem overjoyed. Becky Tipper, the Network Rail manager in charge of the reopening, was surprised when, as her workers began laying the track, “a crowd of people” showed up again. This time, no crowns. Instead, Ms. Tipper said, they started to clap.

This article appeared in the Great Britain section of the print edition under the title “Railing against modernity”

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