It’s been a long time since the settlements of Pelsall and Brownhills had a passenger rail link. When I was a child in the seventies, I remember watching freight trains rumble down the line that ran through the town, carrying a wide variety of cargo from coal to new cars from Longbridge. Sadly, along came the eighties and the Thatcherite disdain for public service – budget cutbacks at British Rail led to the mothballing and eventual removal of most of the permanent way between Walsall’s Ryecroft Junction and Lichfield’s Cross City line, leaving only a single track to serve the one tanker train a week that called at Charringtons oil depot on the A5. Just after the turn of the millennium, that depot closed too, leaving behind a desolate but still intact track-bed sadly mostly devoid of rails and rapidly becoming overgrown. Panoramio user Dawntreader travelled the path of the old line from central Brownhills to Lichfield a couple of years ago and uploaded pictures of his exploration to Panoramio. They’re still representative of the current state of the line.
Click images to see larger versions in Panoramio – all photos by Panoramio user ‘Dawntreader’.
One can rail – if you’ll pardon the pun – at the apparent stupidity of the decision to mothball the South Staffordshire line. Many can rage eloquently at the bullishness of the road transport lobby that hemmed in communities by clogging up their roads with former railfreight, delivering the monetarist creed that profit was all that counted. Some may even lament, misty eyed, the era of steam and stationmaster’s whistle that Beeching brutally butchered. All of this is worthy, and I sympathise wholeheartedly, but we are now where we stand and must, if possible, move forward. Unfortunately, in the climate that now exists, both within Walsall’s civic hive-mind and nationally in the political consciousness, we’re never likely to see a rail link restored to Brownhills. In fact, we’re very unlikely to see anything useful done with the track-bed at all.
Whilst I support the efforts by groups like Brownhills Rail Action Group (who seem to have died, they have no web presence) and the crusades by Kevin Ellis, as well as affirmative actions by Barbara Cassidy and former councillor Richard Worrall, I fear that their efforts are wasted because both locally and nationally, our government couldn’t give a toss about public transport. Most of our politicians, just like the public, travel almost exclusively by car, and consider it the only way to travel. Therefore, the only approach to transport must be wholly and solely aimed at roads, road transport and the associated industries. Those of us who use public transport, or indeed, alternative forms of transport like walking or cycling, are viewed as either impoverished, eccentric or simple. Moreover, the public view of such alternative forms of travel is that it would be wonderful if they were more encouraged and more popular, because that would take more traffic off the roads and make their drive to work easier. Public transport is always a fantastic solution for everyone else.
I mention this now, because there’s been some buzz recently about the Association of Train Operating Companies – ATOC – ‘Connecting Communities’ report (.pdf file, Adobe reader required), which recommends restoration of the route between Walsall and Brownhills (at 52 million pounds) or between Walsall and Lichfield (at 70 million pounds). It suggests rebuilding of a single track railway, with stations at Brownhills and Pelsall. On the face of it, this seems like great news – it would provide quicker links to Walsall, Birmingham and beyond, but includes no details of how such a plan would be funded. The authors of the study also suggest that an hourly service would be appropriate. This is all great, positive thinking but I’ve got a few problems with it.
Firstly, throughout the daytime, there’s a bus service to Walsall every 10 minutes or so, and a services to Birmingham every half an hour. There’s also a half-hourly bus service to Burntwood and Lichfield, but it’s expensive and slow. The bus service to Walsall takes about 20 minutes off peak, so that to compete with this, a rail service would have to be, say, every 20 minutes, otherwise passengers will just get the bus instead – just as they did with the Walsall to Wolverhampton service, because it was so infrequent and irregularly timed. Trains need to be frequent enough not to matter too much if you miss one or if they’re running a bit late.
Secondly, we live on the very edge of the West midlands. In terms of public transport, we’ve got a great service to the rest of the county, even if Travel West Midlands do save the most decrepit, unpleasant vehicles just for us. If we want to go into Staffordshire, the service is lousy and expensive, because Walsall Council, Centro (the West Midlands passenger transport executive) and Staffordshire County Council couldn’t form a constructive dialog if their very lives depended on it. That’s why we have a bare minimum direct bus service between Walsall and Lichfield, which has just this weekend been axed to 6 busses a day at peak time only (the 991 service) – subsidy funding can never be constructively supplied or agreed. Quite how the parties would get on trying to cross-fund a railway service would be really, really interesting.
Thirdly, Walsall talks positively about all this stuff, without ever having any intention of doing anything constructive. Barbara Cassidy, councillor for Brownhills recently submitted a motion at a meeting of full council on the 6th July 2008, supported by councillors Graham Wilkes, Ian Robertson and Keith Chambers:
17. To consider the following motion, notice of which has been duly given by Councillors Cassidy, Wilkes, Roberston and Chambers:
(1) The Council welcomes the findings of the Association of Train Operating Companies’ (ATOC) report “Connecting Communities: Expanding Access to the Rail Network” which appraised 70 English communities of over 15,000 population who are unconnected by rail and identified nine areas ripe for reconnection – two of which were Aldridge, and Pelsall, Brownhills.
(2) The Council notes:
(a) that the Benefit Cost Ratio (BCR) score for these two rail restorations exceeds The Department for Transport (DfT) pass mark for new schemes;
(b) that ATOC’s analysis indicates a strong positive business case for each scheme;
(c) that the focus of the ATOC report is on “opportunities to connect communities which could be delivered relatively quickly”, and assumes a decision to proceed by 2014.
(3) The Council confirms its unequivocal commitment to the earliest possible development and implementation of these two schemes, and its wish to work with the necessary urgency to achieve this end with all parties, in particular ATOC, Centro, interested local authorities and the DfT. It accordingly instructs that:
(a) a positive response be made to ATOC by the 31st July consultation deadline in the first instance; and
(b) expresses its commitment to work thereafter with ATOC and all interested parties on developing these two schemes to the point of decision at the earliest possible date..
I broadly support this motion, in common with most people who’d like to see a train service reinstated for Brownhills. The statement about developing to the point of decision is a key caveat that needs to be considered carefully; they’ll work to a conclusion, which will undoubtedly be ‘no’. Why? Well, it’s too big a decision, too big a project to leave to the amateurs in local government. The farcical ring road project was originally projected to cost a quarter of the sum required to reinstate the link to Lichfield, and that went a third over budget. While I’m not naive enough to think that Walsall would be in charge of rebuilding a railway, the bits it would have to provide – funding for stations, bridge improvements – would cost far too much for a penny-pinching, cut-back, cut price council to invest in. Councillors are elected with short tenures, and aren’t prepared to take risks upsetting their constituents on issues that may cost them votes locally. This can be seen already in the placatory Nimby-stroking currently going on over on Pelsall councillor Marco Longhi’s blog, in which the councillor attempts damage limitation after he found that a particularly niggly article about his view of the rail link was unexpectedly preserved for posterity by the YamYam. The article and blog post show that, despite gestures to the contrary, councillors are more worried about short term votes than they are about benefit to the wider community. This wouldn’t be so ironic, except for the fact that in the previous post on his blog, he bemoans the prospect of road pricing by arguing that there was no public transport alternative. You’re the councillor, Marco, we’re looking to you for solutions – so far, all we’ve got from your council is poorer public transport and astronomical parking charges.
This lack of imagination and vision is what will stifle any chance of passenger rail returning to Pelsall or Brownhills. Decisions like this should be taken by government, at a national level, and funded largely by them. People living near the line should be compensated accordingly for any blight caused, but it’s worth remembering that homes near good commuting facilities such as rail stations generally increase in value. The old line has never been a secret and those living near it have always known that reinstatement was a possibility; a rail line isn’t any worse than road traffic, and if I were a Pelsall resident I’d be far more worried about the prospective move of the council depot to just outside their village. Since that’s being rushed through council, I doubt if councillors have been shouting about that too loudly…
Walsall Council couldn’t even manage to keep the Walsall to Wolverhampton rail link open – with existing stations, on existing track, because they wouldn’t take the bold decision to invest in a frequent service. The option of a station at Aldridge was talked out of council several times by an Aldridge councillor who was terribly worried about the noise of electric train doors, despite the line having multiple coal trains rumbling through it a day. Land was acquired at Willenhall for a station that was never built. This is the reality of transport planning in Walsall; narrow minds, short-termism and a failure of vision, but ill thought out road projects get steamrollered… literally, and sod anyone they may inconvenience.
In the absence of any positive movement, the best thing to do with the line in my opinion would be to convert it fully to a cycle/walking trail. It’s already partially forming National Cycle Rote 5 from Ryecroft to Pelsall; it would make a fine, non-hilly traffic free route all the way to Lichfield, with easy access to Pelsall, Brownhills, Chasewater, Hammerwich and Wall. Sustrans has an agreement in such cases that should the former track bed be required for rail again, that alternate arrangements for the cycle route should be made, so it wouldn’t inhibit the eventual return of rail. However, this is never likely to happen either, as widely trumpeted plans to re-route and expand the current route through Pelsall in 2005 – extending the track as far as Brownhills – mysteriously died when the planning application was withdrawn (planning application ref.05/2413/FL/E3 – enter that reference here if the link doesn’t work). In short, our council doesn’t care about such matters and only pays lip service to them when it wants good publicity.
Unless we give power to people bold enough to take big decisions, transport in Walsall will not improve, and out congested roads will continue to choke.