Home View from Underground From England, a lesson in rail restoration

From England, a lesson in rail restoration

by Benjamin Kabak

England is looking at reactivating hundreds of miles of deactivated rail lines. (Via Wisbech Rail Reopening Campaign)

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.

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Stephen Smith April 29, 2016 - 12:25 am

In the UK, they don’t staff each regional train with four conductors. Restoring routes cut in the Beeching Axe would be totally unfeasible if they did.

Maybe if the LIRR had operated (or, had been allowed to operate – when the Illinois Central tried to cut service to salvage the profitability of what is now the low-frequency, low-ridership, high-cost, high-subsidy Metra Electric District, they were shot down by labor arbitrators) routes like the old Rockaway Beach Branch or the Lower Montauk Branch more efficiently, they wouldn’t have been closed in the first place.

Larry Littlefield April 29, 2016 - 9:46 am

From what I read from old timers, the LIRR was the laziest bunch of workers and the worst managers in railroading. Under private ownership, before the MTA was even involved.

Despite being run by the Pennsylvania Railroad, “the standard railroad of the world,” for decades.

Which shows how hard the entrenched parasitic culture you have out there is to change. Just as on Wall Street.

The only real option is the way it works in the private sector. The firm, with all its accumulated favors, deals, alliances, etc. goes under and disappears. A new organization with an entirely new group of less entitled people takes its place. The former workers have to accept voluntary arrangement somewhere else, one that takes into account a fair bargain for other people.

Christopher April 29, 2016 - 10:37 am

My father began his career in human resources for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Not sure I have heard much about the relative laziness of the workforce but he worked across many industries — railroad, manufacturing, energy. Both private and public. He tends to side with labor over management but that’s probably a class distinction, having been raised poor on a farm he’s never been fond of management types.

Anyway, sort of relatedly, Muni in SF was created in order to break up the private unions. Public unions were considered to have less power, so the idea for taking over the railways from private ownership was pushed by the old school moneyed elite in SF in the 20s as a way to disempower labor.

paulb April 29, 2016 - 6:11 am

I biked the very nice North/South County trail (old Putnam railway) the other day, and as much as I enjoyed it, did wonder would there once have been an argument for turning it into light rail.

Alistair April 29, 2016 - 11:41 am

I just moved into a house close to the Old Put. Honestly, with the population density the way it is, most people would head to the station by car. And once you’re in a car, the Harlem and Hudson lines are so close by (and pass through more town centers anyway) that you might as well drive to one of those.

It would be different if the Harlem and Hudson were so full that they couldn’t fit more passengers on the trains and/or couldn’t fit more trains on the tracks. But there’s ample room to grow both of those.

tacony April 29, 2016 - 11:55 am

It’s actually kind of amazing that the Old Put was ever profitable given the low population densities along the route (and my understanding is that it ran with fairly “rapid-transit” style frequencies for a while!)

Goes to show how different the world was before the car became ubiquitous.

paulb April 29, 2016 - 6:23 pm

I’ve been wondering if the warehouses and industrial shops that smother the trail at Elmsford (and which require that zig-zag between the South and North sections) are on what used to be a yard. I can see that as a shuttle between suburban towns, there’d not be much call for a train.

And it will be a great day if ever the idea to re-animate the Rockaway ROW ever gains traction (so to speak).

John Muller April 30, 2016 - 12:09 am

Westchester could use all the mass transit infrastructure it can get; the villages and their mostly too small roads are really inadequate for local traffic. There are quite a few north-south commuter routes into the city, but very little east-west capacity; thus the buses don’t have any roads to support decent east-west movement and thus many villages only connect to their north and south cousins with decent roads.

The Put ROW is another north-south number (because that’s the way the hills and valleys run), but it could become a feeder into central Yonkers for a light rail that could be economically beneficial to Yonkers and the not all that scarce villages along the Put route. It is already mostly grade separated where it runs along the Saw Mill Pkwy and while it was mostly a single track operation, there is space for another track at the stations and most other places also. If anyone got a couple of serious east-west corridors going, the Put line and Central Ave (another potential light rail route) would fill in the gaps between the Hudson and Harlem lines and could enable people to go between most towns in lower Westchester, perhaps making it possible to actually get around without a car, something which can only be done selectively (and unpleasantness) at the moment.

adirondacker12800 April 30, 2016 - 12:41 am

So a line the Erie railroad built to attempt competing with the Central, who had the good right of way, was so little utilized when there were no automobiles is going to be fabulous now that there are?

johndmuller May 2, 2016 - 12:02 am

Well first of all, Adirondacker, it’s not 1960 anymore; a lot more people live along this route, yet the highway system is virtually the same, only more congested, making people somewhat more interested.

The Put is probably not the best route to start with, but it does have the advantage of being largely still there (except for the rails to trails thing), and as I said before, mostly grade separated.

The original route thru Van Cortland park to the Hudson line is still possible (though that would suggest using real rail cars and connecting to MN), but a newer routing with streetcars into Getty Square in Yonkers might be more attractive (I think there was something that did that route earlier).

Maybe a rich rail-fan hobbyist will adopt the line and put something back into service.

adirondacker12800 May 2, 2016 - 12:18 am

The population has grown just over 50% since 1950. They live all over the county, including the places that were farmland north of the dam back in 1950. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense when they closed it down and it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense today either.

Will April 30, 2016 - 1:46 am

I have wondered about that as well.

In fact, I wondered why nobody (AFAIK) proposed using it as a conduit to a rail crossing over the new Tappan Zee Bridge (at least before it was eliminated).

The bridge elevation was all wrong to connect such a crossing to the Hudson line; and it would have been arduous, expensive, and inefficient time-wise to connect it to the Harlem.

Why not have the rail come across the Tappan Zee, then parallel I-87 (directly or approximately) until it reached the old Put just south of Elmsford? Reactivate the Put, which could take trains right into the Hudson line just south of 225th St., and thence to Grand Central. (I assume that any corporate barriers from the old NYC days for Put trains entering GCT would be gone by now, right?)

You could probably squeeze in a few stations as well. But I assume that the bulk of the traffic would be to Rockland and Orange Counties.

It wouldn’t be easy, now that the rails have been torn up.

There are spots that would have to be finessed, such as around Mile Square Road in Yonkers, and Van Cortland Park. Maybe put the ROW in a trench or even underground for a short stretch?

Of course, the connection from the bridge to the Put ROW would be expensive. But if Metro could build the Silver Line in NoVA, and if the rail connection to JFK could be made, why not this?

I do not have the depth of experience of most of you, but it certainly seems worthy of consideration.

I’ve never biked it. I may have to do that this summer.

adirondacker12800 April 30, 2016 - 2:46 am

If the point is to get people from Orange and Rockland counties to Manhattan it’s a lot cheaper to have them use the trains that already run in Orange and Rockland counties.

AG April 30, 2016 - 5:24 pm

Well a “cross county rail” would probably work best. Basically the same corridor as I 287.. It would also in effect connect to the 3 north south Metro North lines in Westchester.

adirondacker12800 April 30, 2016 - 6:01 pm

So a few hundred people can ride infrequent trains?

AG April 30, 2016 - 10:36 pm

I guess you missed the context of the story.

Larry Littlefield April 29, 2016 - 8:01 am

I agree.

“In the UK, they don’t staff each regional train with four conductors. Restoring routes cut in the Beeching Axe would be totally unfeasible if they did.”

The LIRR is a gang and not a railroad. But if a route can have enough ridership to support a bus, it can have enough ridership to support non-electrified light rail.

In fact, I see a future for semi-electriciation, with overhead wires and catenary only in the vicinity of stations to recharge batteries and power acceleration. Vehicles running on rails use far less power cruising at speed.

MordyK April 29, 2016 - 1:12 pm

Something similar already exists in South Korea.

Roy April 29, 2016 - 2:49 pm

Also in the UK the Midland Metro light-rail is going to use battery power for its extension into the city centre, with trams coming off the OHLE about a mile from the end of the line. This is for aesthetic reasons to keep the OHLE out of the historic centre, but the technique could certainly be useful elsewhere, e.g. low overbridges or tunnels that would be prohibitively expensive to reengineer for electrification.

Dave Moog April 29, 2016 - 10:01 am

Take the M train and extend it to Jackson Heights, reactivate the Lower Montauk line along with the Rego Park Spur, and lay down tracks on the former Rockway ROW. Just in Queens you could add lines on ROW and open up land for housing and solve a chronic issue in NYC. Add in the ROW on Staten Island, the Bronx and Brooklyn and you have yourself a future with transit in the mix

Panthers May 2, 2016 - 5:08 pm

The way the City and the MTA treat the M line, that’s just not feasible. There’s always service shutdowns, repairs, and a general scaling back of services on the weekends. A way to make the J, M, Z more popular is to introduce a true downtown express. Take the Z. Myrtle Ave (J, M), Marcy Ave (J,M), Essex St. (F, J, M), then Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall. Use the two unused sets of tracks that are walled off at Canal and Bowery. That’s a start.

Chet April 29, 2016 - 10:11 am

I took my first trip to the UK in 1991 and was quite surprised that not only was there no direct (even semi-direct) train from Oxford to Cambridge, but there wasn’t even a highway (motorway). I had to drive through basically country roads (dual carriageways as they would call them there).
In fact, the lack of the train was one of the reasons I rented a car for part of that trip. Going between Oxford and Cambridge still means basically going through London… from rail stations on almost different sides of the city. (Oxford trains go from Paddington; Cambridge trains from Kings Cross)

AMH April 29, 2016 - 10:51 am

I think you mean single carriageways. A dual carriageway is a divided highway.

Rational Plan May 2, 2016 - 2:14 pm

In the post war era, the modernisation of the UK’s railways saw many minor stations closed on the mainlines and speed progressively raised. For many destinations it became quicker to travel to London and then back out again via a different line than take the slow local route.

Traffic on these routes collapsed further and in the end they were often closed.

These days it’s all different. The railway is no longer declining and is now crush loaded like never before. People are commuting ever longer distance and not just to major cities. There is the traffic these days to support regional routes. Currently they have started to renew the old line between Oxford and Cambridge (So far only to Bedford). But it will not be local country route. It is being rebuilt to a mainline standard of 100 mph trains. It will connect many small cities along it’s route and is envisigned to be used by a mix regional express services and a variety of long distance cross country services allowing new city pairings to be created.

Christopher April 29, 2016 - 10:29 am

These discussions of England, fail to note similar projects and discussions in the US. The Sonoma-Marin train that is being rebuilt now, is not just a reactivation of a right of way, it’s also a rails AND trails project, providing both trains to a part of the Bay Area that has only been served by buses for many decades, and also a new bike train. http://main.sonomamarintrain.org/

The new purple line being planned in the Maryland suburbs of DC also makes use of existing rights of way. Chicago, particularly the Western suburbs, has also looked at ways reactivate rail lines in the western suburbs as a outer loop. That idea is not as advanced as the SMART train or the Purple Line of course.

Duke April 30, 2016 - 12:17 am

It’s also worth noting that the line proposed for reactivation to Wisbech runs past essentially nothing but farm fields along the way. It is not a similar project to anything that might be done in NYC because it is rural in nature.

A more analagous comparison around here would be the proposal to restore passenger service to Stroudsburg and the Pocoonos. Or one of the many proposed/potential extensions to SEPTA regional service that could be made.

Opportunities to reactivate rail lines in densely populated areas are not numerous because the demand for land tends to mean that once a route is abandoned, parts of the ROW tend to get bought up and built on fairly quickly. The Whitestone and Central branches of the LIRR in Queens, the South Beach SIRR branch… none of these can ever be reactivated because they’ve all been built over. The Whitestone branch so thoroughly so that almost no trace of its former existence remains.

James Scantlebury April 29, 2016 - 11:35 am

A more pertinent example would be the London Overground – a section of line in South London disused since 1911, and all it took was a 2.5-kilometre (1.6 mi) connection in the early 2010s to complete London’s second orbital railway – London Overground. Cost was around £75m (phase II) for all the upgrades (new trains, refurbishment of existing stations etc).

See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/East_London_line_extension

London Overground has been a huge success here – driving ridership through the roof on previously underused lines – “Passenger numbers have increased five-fold since 2007 and today LOROL carries more than 520,000 passengers every day”

Railway reopening as all the rage here at the moment – the Borders Railway in Scotland (a rural line through picturesque country) was busy with commuters to Edinburgh on Day 1!

ben guthrie April 29, 2016 - 12:31 pm

I believe the idea is to use the ROW for a subway line. Let’s talk about that and not get distracted talking about lazy or overstaffed conductors on the LIRR.

Michael549 April 29, 2016 - 1:12 pm

Full agreement!

Larry Littlefield April 29, 2016 - 2:27 pm

Great idea if they can link it into the QB line.

Not to mention completing the plan to convert one of the two LIRR lines in SE Queens to a subway line. The original plan involved the more suburban of the two lines, and was killed by NIMBYs. How about linking the E train to the other one?

Michael k April 29, 2016 - 1:55 pm

Amazing that we are talking about self driving trucks on interstate highways, but we still have four conductors per train

Thomas April 29, 2016 - 3:00 pm

That article is also incredibly useful for the phrase “pharaonic projects” — which seems very fitting around here for a variety of things.

Benjamin Kabak April 29, 2016 - 3:08 pm

Cough cough Calatrava cough cough

wiseinfrastructure May 2, 2016 - 9:57 pm

The Atlantic Avenue LIRR will be used by maybe 2 trains per hour under more expensive FRA rules once ESA diverts trains to Grand Central – what a waste.

The ideal use would be a Jamaica subway service via a new east river tunnel. By Jamaica getting a new express subway to Manhattan, the over capacity Queens Blvd IND would be relieved of much traffic.

Too expensive? Run subway trains express from Jamaica to East NY with half continuing to the Flatbush terminal and half diverting on to the Brooklyn Bdwy BMT into Manhattan via the Williamsburgh Bridge. There used to a connection between the LIRR and this line – to what extent does the ROW still exist? Little construction is needed and thousands would benefit from an upgraded commute.

Eric May 3, 2016 - 4:28 am

No, the ideal use would be Jamaica-Manhattan service on the existing LIRR track (+ESA) at subway fares with subway fare integration. It would relieve the Queens Blvd line without any construction.


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