Back on track after Beeching

HE'S gone down in the annals of history as one of the villains of the modern age, the axe-man who came to cut up and dispose of half of all stations and over 4,000 miles of our national railway lines.

In retrospect many take a more considered view of Beeching. The debt-ridden train system had become a problem, the general consensus is that he simply came up with the wrong solution.

His response, in the form of the 1963 report The Reshaping of British Railways, was one which saw Leeds’s network of 40 stations slashed to the point that today we have just 18 stations with the Leeds postcode, and just a handful within the main urban hub.

Local historian John Ashby said: “Beeching’s cuts were particularly severe for Leeds and the reason for choosing one station over another was never made public, it certainly never seemed to make sense.

“The cuts were all about short term savings without much consideration for the long term cost. Certainly in years to come civic leaders will have wished many of the stations remained in place, luckily many did.

“The only problem is that some of the lines and stations have now been dismantled to such a degree that bringing them back into use isn’t economically viable,. Thankfully some are still retrievable, mainly those stations which are on lines which are still operating.”

Over the next two years three old stations could reopen, Kirkstall Forge, Horsforth Woodside and Apperley Bridge, and a whole new station created in a yet to be determined site in east Leeds.

Metro, the West Yorkshire Passenger Transport Authority, are at various stages of development with the schemes. Work at Apperley Bridge could start next year and most are expected to open around 2011, if all the funding is secured.

Should the cash be found it could go some way toward repairing the damage done to the local rail network by Beeching – and it’s damage which can’t be understated.

After 1963 the branch line to Wetherby and surrounding villages disappeared, as did countless others to places like Kippax and Otley. Major suburbs like Holbeck, Hunslet and Armley lost their stations and Beeching even tried to close the line to Ilkley, but the government eventually backed down in face of huge local protest.

“Beeching really does have a lot to answer for,” said Bramley Councillor Neil Taggart who’s campaigning for the reopening of Kirkstall and Stanningley train stations, both on lines which run through his west Leeds ward.

“The damage done years ago was outrageous and only now are we realising this with environmental pressures and increasing congestion.

“The amount of rail passenger numbers has just gone up and up recently – I think something like 20m passengers used the Leeds rail network last year, that’s a staggering amount.

“And where other new stations have been opened – such as East Garforth and Burley Park in the 1980s – they’ve been a big success.

“I think they are potentially a very strong part of an anti-congestion strategy for Leeds and I think the government should intervene to ensure the funding will be there.”

Coun Taggart is concerned that some of the stations already in the pipeline, like Horsforth Woodside and Kirkstall Forge, are dependant on adjacent housing developments which, in the current economic climate, could face an uncertain future.

But he should also be heartened by the fact that Metro has a wish-list of around 12 stations which, over the coming months, it intends to consider for reopening.

There’s now a greater political will, but the way is unclear since the biggest hurdle remains rising costs. Whereas the 2000 opening of Brighouse station cost 1m, reopening Apperley Bridge station in 2011 is expected to cost 5m.

That coupled with a complex rail system and a variety of local, private, regional and national funding streams requiring different criteria to be met means that the process of opening stations can be arduous.

“It’s difficult but far from impossible,” said David Hoggart, Metro’s director of development. “We’ve actually always had a local commitment to trains and over the last two decade we’ve opened 20 new stations around West Yorkshire and intend to continue that.

“It’s also a very worthwhile and crucial part of our overall strategy when it comes to transport and combating congestion.”

So could trains solve all of Leeds’s congestion problems? Probably not since much of north and north east Leeds has no existing railway lines running through this huge chunk of the city and, due to geography, is never likely to.

With two existing lines running to Harrogate and York any new line would effectively have nowhere to run to, this would also prove to be a logistical nightmare since north Leeds is much more hilly than other parts of the city.

Victorian engineers avoided steep gradients by weaving between hills wherever they could. Unfortunately major towns, like Headingley, Horsforth and Pudsey, were often built on hills, so lines and stations had to lie on low points, further away from the urban centres.

They were also constructed in an age when the railways ruled and cities built up around lines and stations; these days building new ones would involve cutting through the dense jungle of roads and buildings which would not only prove extremely costly it could be physically impossible.

Hoggart said: “But the current mantra is of using what infrastructure we have and in an age when environmental considerations are of increasing importance that puts more and more focus on the rail network.

“There are certain sections of Leeds where it will be a virtual impossibility to build new track and stations and in those areas we’re looking at filling the gaps with new bus and tram-train schemes.

“But where we already have lines we’re looking to maximise capacity and look at every new opportunity we can. We’ll never fully restore the old network, but we can still go some way towards it.”