19 Sep 2011

What If: Britain had historically adopted a more rational policy towards its railways?

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This is a question I’ve often considered, most recently on a day out in the Trossachs at the end of August.

One of the greatest assets of the Trossachs is that this unique, beautiful area is located so close to Glasgow, Edinburgh and Scotland’s urban belt.  Certainly, the adaptation of steam power to land and water transport in the nineteenth century, helped with some publicity from, amongst others, Sir Walter Scott and  Queen Victoria,  opened up this spectacular area for the first time so visitors, of all social classes, could experience the fresh air and marvel at the dramatic scenery.

Thunderstorm over Loch Lubnaig

By the beginning of the twentieth century the railway linked Dunblane with Callander, through Balquhidder and Crianlarich en route to Oban.  From Balloch it was possible to travel eastwards to Stirling, with a branch off to Aberfoyle, on a line that also linked Blanefield with the northern suburbs of Glasgow.

So, from then until the 1960s it was possible to travel by train from Glasgow, Edinburgh and the central belt right to the shores of the dazzling lochs Katrine, Voil and Lubnaig, the slopes of Ben Ledi or the heart of Rob Roy country and be able to complete a linear walk, or a cycle and enjoy a full day before a relaxing return in the evening:  similar to what you can still do today using, say, the mountain railways of Switzerland. http://www.railbrit.co.uk/_maps/index.htm  shows Scotland’s railway system at its zenith.

 Of course, you can still easily reach these places today, but only if you have a car.

On my recent trip to the Trossachs I had to curtail an ascent of Ben Ledi just short of the summit because I could not risk missing an early evening bus from Callander to Stirling that  linked  with the specific Glasgow train I had a ticket for. Because of confused information about whether buses stop at the bottom of the climb along the A84, I  had to walk the three miles or so  from and to Callander; a frustrating culmination to what should have been an enjoyable day out and one that could only be attempted in the first place after a time-consuming and often frustrating internet search to find compatible trains and buses.

Although the climb would have been easily accomplished with access to a car,  any personal convenience gained by driving would have been overwhelmingly offset by the negative environmental effects of pollution and congestion in an exquisite  but fragile area;  particularly when, as in this case, there was only one person travelling.  And, even for those unaware, or indifferent to their emissions, crawling along narrow, congested roads is hardly the best way to enjoy the stunning scenery and driving to a destination generally makes it difficult to complete a linear walk, unless two vehicles are used.

Although the railways in the Trossachs are long closed, plenty of evidence of them remains and Sustrans, in particular, has performed a valuable service in acquiring  and developing so many of these disused lines for cycle routes.

But, how much better if these tracks, and not just in the Trossachs, but in the Peak District, or Devon, or Galloway – think Ashbourne through to Buxton, all the way along the Tarka Trail, Dumfries to Stranraer along the glorious Galloway coast – still existed as railways? The benefits of enabling everyone, including those with limited mobility,  to enjoy the Tissington Trail, or Glen Ogle viaduct would be sufficient justification, to say nothing of the opportunity to travel right into the heart of these alluring areas without congestion and driving stress – even the most hardened petrol head would be hard pushed to dispute the superiority of the view over Loch Lubnaig from the viaduct, as opposed to that from the busy and dangerous A84.

But, this isn’t going to happen, particularly in a country like Britain that can’t even operate its main line railways efficiently and economically. Even when inventive and valuable initiatives have been introduced, like the Trossachs Trundler (an adapted bus that could transport people and their bikes between various points in the Trossachs), they have invariably failed to break even and have been  scrapped: in effect, the same short sighted, short term economic justifications that did for the railways.

What is needed is the opposite: long term, holistic, out of the box planning. Investment has to given to sustainable transport, combined with a workable system of rewards and penalties.  If this means levying charges on motorists for parking and congestion to raise capital, then so be it; it is  cars, after all, that cause congestion and pollution. And, if more restrictions and charges on cars lead to a more sensible attitude towards, say car sharing, so much the better.

Looking over Loch Lubnaig from the slopes of Ben Ledi

In the meantime, the best we can do is ensure we make the most of the routes that remain, by boot and bike, restrict and share car use as much as possible and continue to lobby for access for those who do not, or choose not to, drive.

 

 

Information:

The Trossachs Trundler was partially  replaced by the introduction of Demand Response Transport (DRT) by Stirling Council http://www.incallander.co.uk/drtleaflet.pdf  Taxis and minibuses, operated by www.aberfoylecoaches.com provide the transport in specific areas, arranged in advance, and passengers are charged the public transport rate for the journey. However, the vehicles (people carriers) are not adapted for carrying bikes and the requirement to book in advance clearly reduces spontaneity. Also, please note that the phone number used is an 0844 which will be charged at considerably more than standard rate, particularly from mobiles.

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