Friday, 24 January 2014

I SPENT MOST OF MY LATE CHILDHOOD AND A GOOD PART OF MY TEENS pursuing a dark passion. The situations I sought were always steamy, sometimes hot and, occasionally, dirty. My parents knew of my obsession, tolerated it in private, but were clearly embarrassed about my predilections. The fact that my obsession frequently required the presence of three or four other boys, and that I often arrived home quite late at night, sometimes with my clothing in disarray, and usually tired and emotional, were burdens they stoically bore. Yes, readers, it is the vice that dare not speak its name. While other youths were innocently out and about having a crafty Kensitas behind the tennis courts, sharing an illicit bottle of Bulmers' Woodpecker cider, or fumbling with the elastic of Norma Nugent's nickers, I was…..the word sticks in my throat …..trainspotting.
THE LEAD IN MY PENCIL was always as sharp as my eyes (behind NHS specs, which later, much much later, became iconic),  Brylcreem gave me an immaculate side parting, and the Tizer in my school satchel was always served at room temperature, to wash down my favourite packed lunch sandwiches - white bread, margarine, Marmite, Kraft cheese slices, delicately drizzled with Heinz Salad Cream.

I AM GIVING YOU this totally unwanted, unnecessary and redundant information because I want to establish my credentials as a railway lover. I have authored nostalgic railway websites, built an amazing 00 gauge layout for my elder son, and still, occasionally dream of the unique whistle of a Gresley A4 thundering through Peterborough Station on a warm afternoon, some time in the early 1960s.

MY RAILWAY MANIA KNOWS NO BOUNDS. Well actually, it does. It comes to a juddering halt at the futile bid by some very well-meaning Wisbech people to restore the derelict rail link from Wisbech to March. There are two camps. The first wants the line restored as a Heritage Railway - The Bramley Line. 

THE SECOND, more audaciously, wants a fully working freight and passenger railway. Already, thousands of pounds of someone's money (Ed. "It's called Public Funds") has been spent on feasibility surveys, business plan audits, vision statements and community impact consultations. (actually, all those phrases were made up, but they sound good, don't they?)

CUTTING TO THE CHASE.  Here are five solid reasons why the railway between Wisbech and March will never re-open as a working business.

ONE - NO DEMAND. Ask yourself why the line closed in the first place. To passengers? Just go online, and check the per-hundred-of-population figures for car ownership in 1963. What is that figure in 2014? Doubled? To freight? I have been in Wisbech for over twenty years, and can just remember when there was still the occasional freight train from Nestle Purina crawling to heaven knows where. Now? It's all HGVs and roads. It's cheap, easy and takes ten seconds to sign up to an online petition, in this case the petition to restore the rail link. I would take it more seriously if everyone who signed had to commit to buying a full price season ticket for the line's first year of operation.
TWO - NO STATION. Rail travelers need somewhere to embark. Parking is essential. Shelter, safety, reasonable access are also obviously required. Although the trackbed is partially intact, there is no station in Wisbech. The two historic stations have long since disappeared under bijou boxy housing. Under a state funded initiative, some new stations have been built in recent years. The one in Newcourt, Devon, cost a cool £1.44 million. Where would it be built? In town is clearly a non-runner. The slight problems of no land and no access spring immediately to mind.
THREE - THE A47 TRUNK ROAD. Leaving aside that there is another pressure group dedicated to improving this vital east-west route, with complete dualling as a bare minimum, we have the slight difficulty that a few years ago, the powers that be concreted over the crossing just south of Cromwell Road. Everyone knows how dense the traffic is on the A47. It is a nightmare, even when it is flowing smoothly. So, how about every thirty minutes, the level crossing closes for a while to let a sparsely inhabited train through? Cue mayhem. Someone even suggested building a road bridge to take the road over the railway. Add in another cool couple of million to the bill.

FOUR - NO PROFIT. This is slightly more thorny. Some public transport service are run as just that - services. They are heavily subsidised from…yes, you've got it, the public purse. (Sighs, and reaches for wallet) A prime example is local 'bus services. As a card-carrying old duffer, I occasionally use my 'bus pass, and it is a rare experience to see money exchange hands between the driver and passengers. The buses exist pretty much solely for the benefit of the Saga Crowd, but the economics of bus transport are way, way different from that of the railways. Here's some quick maths. Research has shown (OK, I Googled it) to run a two carriage Diesel Multiple Unit of the 175/M class, costs £11.78 per mile.

It's 8 miles from Wisbech to March along the railway. I calculate that if you ran one train an hour, each way between 0800 and 2200, you would have over £2,600 running costs each day. If you estimated a day return as £10, that means 260 journeys each day. Really?
FIVE - NO MONEY. I started to calculate the overall spend on this project, including building costs, staffing, maintenance, revenue stream. I was using Excel, but after a few minutes the program gave up, the screen froze, and I had to reboot the computer. Britain - or at least your and my Britain - the Britain of ordinary people, hardworking families, folk who have to check their funds while using the ATM - have no money. We are taxed to buggery, snipped, pruned and crimped. We are manipulated by a political class slightly lower than a snake's arse. 

THERE IS NO MONEY. For you or for me. Away from the polemic, what is the journey a Wisbech rail traveler would most want to make? Wisbech-King's Lynn? Would be great, but not a chance. Wisbech-Cambridge? Who lives in Wisbech but works in Cambridge? Wisbech-Peterborough? Now you're talking! Oh wait…the train from Wisbech either veers off to the West, therefore missing March Station, or swings East to the station. And is then on the Cambridge line.

A LINK TO THE FREE WORLD would be brilliant, but it ain't gonna happen. Some of the lovely people engaged on this campaign need a wake up call, and should apply their undoubted talent, enthusiasm and talent to a less fantastical project.