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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

What price a decent railway here?

The announcement by Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin that railway modernisation to the tune of £35 BILLION over the period of this Parliament has been 'derailed' and major upgrades for the national network - north of Watford have been put on hold / delayed / shelved / paused / or simply kicked into a very large field of long grass, is now the latest political nail in the north of England's coffin.

While local County Councillors waffle back and forth about the merits of approving (or not) a single site near Blackpool where international investors could validate the potential of literally Billions of pounds worth of shale gas energy waiting to be unlocked - the deferrment of already delayed electrification of Blackpool's main rail link to the rest of the country - gets hardly a mention in Preston.

The Fylde coast's railway network (such as it is) has been a truncated rump since the Beeching cuts - with nothing in the way of capital investment or singular improvement for nearly sixty years. Repainting Blackpool North station and prettifying its interior hall (built solely to handle the volume of Excursions run to the resort from the 1930s') is as far as 'improvements' got. Poulton's station is fortunate in benefitting from the tender loving care of local groups (and it shows); while Layton, Kirkham and the south Fylde coast stops are little more than barren platforms with cheap bus shelters embedded for passenger (sorry Customer) benefit.

New trains anyone? Not in our lifetime; and certainly not with the current operator whose ability to foist worn out third and fourth hand rolling stock on Fylde coast travellers, is now legendary. Larger communities than Blackpool thrown promises of electrification, meaning faster journey times and updated modern trains by politicians at the beginning of this year - are suddenly offered finger pointing exercises as to why key commitments can no longer be fulfilled.

One wonders whether Blackpool's tram extension to Blackpool North station may make it on time; or indeed if at all? Fortunately it's not Network Rail handling that modest branch extension - otherwise we presumably can kiss it goodbye. Fleetwood said goodbye to its train service over fifty years ago - and look at the impact this intemperate decision still has on the town's economic wellbeing. Sir Richard Branson is quoted as saying 'Network Rail is too big a conglomerate' to be competent in dealing efficiently with the nation's railway infrastructure. The case for breaking it up into regional organisations (possibly along the lines of the prewar 'Big Four' railway companies) is self-evident following this week's announcement of investment delays for which its London based top heavy and of course highly paid management would appear to bear major responsibility.

London's Crossrail scheme carries on (what else is new?; while the mainline to Bristol, South Wales (and Oxford via Reading) will receive priority in electrification of that network - understandable and deserving. But the Northern Powerhouse? Standing on Manchester Piccadilly for a peak hour commuter train back to Bolton, Chorley, Preston and then on to Blackpool - will remain an aggravating experience for millions of passengers paying the highest rail fares in western europe for the forseeable future. It is only when you use regular train services in mainland Europe - pick any one and see; that you realise firsthand just how parlous Britain's railways have become since the politically inept decision to break up a national network and sell the pieces to the private sector. I believe that was under John Major's Government at the time: a rushed through Bill benefitting the City (who else?) rolling stock companies, train company franchisees; and the property minded infrastructure business (Railtrack) which took over the stations, depots and real estate portfolio of British Rail. The supermarkets loved that one.

The public didn't have a chance - and it seems we still don't as far as rail travel in this country is concerned. A ride on the south Fylde line is evidence enough whilst overgrown tracks still embedded from Poulton to Fleetwood just need a headstone R.I.P. to mark the spot where a politically sanctioned Home Counties Accountant aborted the economic wellbeing of communities in this part of the Fylde. What price a decent railway here - FyldeRail anyone, anyone?

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