A few days ago, an interesting article from The Economist caught my eye. It has a dateline of Wisbech, a small East Anglian town with a population of around 31,000 that’s around 40 miles north of Cambridge and around 100 miles north of London. There’s no real particular reason for anyone not from Wisbech to know Wisbech exists, let alone visit it, but there it is, a quintessential-ish British small town.
What draws our attention to Wisbech is something that isn’t there and hasn’t been since the 1960s. That missing something is passenger rail service. Wisbech has a right-of-way that would connect to Cambridge, but it hasn’t seen service since 1968 when a report by Richard Beeching, head of British Rail, called for a massive reduction in service by approximately one-third. Since then, Wisbech has hit troubled times economically.
But now, there is movement afoot in England to reverse these historical wrongs, and that’s where The Economist comes in. Take a read through this short article. I’ll excerpt the key parts:
Yet Wisbech, like many towns cut off from the rail network, is now expecting great things. In recent years several hundred miles of railways around the country have been restored. As roads clog up and urban house prices climb, commuters, environmentalists and local politicians are pushing for more old lines to be re-opened. Some 200 proposals have been put forward, says Andrew Allen of the Campaign for Better Transport, a lobby group.
It is a remarkable new trend. After the war, many thought that roads would rule and rail would go the way of canals. When Milton Keynes, a new town, was built 55 miles north of London in the 1960s, it was deemed not to need a station. One was at last opened in 1982. In 2015 6.6m journeys started or ended there. Traffic on other restored lines has boomed, too. The track that re-opened in 2015 from Edinburgh to the Borders expected 650,000 journeys in its first year. Half a million were made in the first five months.
The process of re-opening is laborious. Feasibility studies take years. But with rail journeys doubling in the past two decades, Whitehall now realises it may be easier and cheaper to add rail capacity this way than through pharaonic projects such as HS2, a high-speed link north from London, set to cost over £45 billion ($64 billion).
It is the growth of Cambridge, 40 miles to the south and a centre for high-tech, that has provided the impetus for re-connecting Wisbech. A new station is opening at the Cambridge Science Park and it is hoped that the old line to Oxford will be restored by 2024. The Wisbech rail link would halve travel time to 40 minutes. Cambridge has lots of jobs and Wisbech has cheap houses (the average price is around £150,000 compared with £398,000 in Cambridge), with a recent local plan proposing 10,000 more. If the link goes ahead, the government would meet most of the £100m cost.
As The Economist notes, Britain’s rail restoration efforts would roll back under 20 percent of the so-called Beeching Cuts, but it’s a movement that’s gaining grassroots support in small towns such as Wisbech throughout the country. For minimal investments, Britain can increase rail capacity and solve congestion issues that are plaguing the nation.
I can’t help but turn my gaze toward the LIRR’s Rockaway Beach Branch — the so-called QueensRail — or the ever-gestating Triboro RX plan. At a time when subway extensions cost over $1 billion per station and take the better of a decade to go just a few miles, reactivating rights-of-way that are no longer in service can be a cheaper, faster way to better transit, and England is proving a particularly fertile proving ground for this approach.
Over the past few decades — even over the past one decade, it often seems — attitudes to rail and transit have shifted dramatically within New York City. The subways are in fact too crowded, and even a modicum of relief is years, if not decades, away. So our rights of way that aren’t used should be preserved for rail use in the future and considered for rail reactivation now. Giving up them would be a mistake with which future generations of New Yorkers would have to live forever. Isolated areas in Queens shouldn’t turn into our own versions of Wisbech.