Weasley words from Westminster

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Shillingstone Station – The passengers waiting at the up platform will have to be patient a while longer. (Click picture to see the station in its prime.)

Background to the campaign

When the Somerset and Dorset Railway closed in 1966 as part of the plan to give Britain ‘a sensible little railway‘, few would have believed that 42 years later there would still be a sustained campaign to reopen the line. One of the original campaigners was a formidable Shillingstone resident, called Ruth Colyer, who as well as campaigning for the future of the S&D, gave generous support to the fledgling Swanage Railway Society which was set up in 1972 to reopen the the branchline from Wareham to Swanage. This is not a post about the Swanage Railway, but about the campaign to reopen the Somerset and Dorset Railway. But when has being “off topic” ever stopped the Dyspozytor from telling a good story?

Ruth was the local secretary of the Ramblers Association and a doughty fighter in the cause of maintaining local rights of way. Her opponents were wealthy and well-connected landowners who saw the public’s use of footpaths and bridle paths as an unnecessary nuisance. She believed that ‘action speaks louder than words’ and when British Railways responded to the Swanage Railway Society’s plans by commencing track lifting from Swanage to Furzebrook she organised a sit-in on the railway formation. It was thanks to Ruth that Dyspozytor learnt some of his own campaigning skills, was tagged as a possible ‘threat to parliamentary democracy’ by MI5 and had his telephone tapped. (Those BTWT readers wondering why Dyspozytor prefers to post under an alias now have their answer!) Ruth’s activities were something of an embarrassment to her brother, Norman Reddaway, who at the time was Britain’s youngest ambassador, and was serving in Warsaw! It is to Ruth Colyer’s memory that Dyspozytor dedicates today’s post.

Bournemouth bound “Pines Express” The S&D at its best (Ivo Peters)

The campaign today

One of the leaders of the current campaign is Steve Sainsbury, the former finance director of the Somerset and Dorset Railway Heritage Trust, who runs his own blog, somerset and dorset. He introduces his campaign with a warning that the project may take several generations to realise.

The New Somerset and Dorset Railway will be a huge project, occupying generations to come. All with an interest in the S&D – past, present and future – are welcome to get involved in any way they can. With Peak Oil and Climate Change now firmly upon us the Second Railway Age is just beginning. The New S&D will be in the vanguard of these exiting and challenging developments.

The concept of railbanking, preserving the integrity of railway routes for future railway use, is still not widely known in the UK. When the S&D closed in 1966, Sustrans which campaigns for the conversion of former railway lines into footpaths, had not yet been set up. Much of the line was sold at rock bottom prices to adajacent landowners, other sections were utilised for road building or sold off for property development. The campaign has a long hard battle ahead of them. One of the opening salvoes was organising an e-petition to the Prime Minister’s office:

“We the undersigned petition the Prime to release funds to rebuild the Somerset and Dorset Railway between Bath and Bournemouth.”

Details of Petition:

“The Somerset and Dorset Railway was, and will be again after Peak Oil, a vital sustainable transport link across Wessex. The government should release funds and simplify the planning and construction process to allow local people to build, own and operate the line in preparation for when our oil runs out.”

The Prime Minister’s office reply was carefully crafted in the same mealy mouthed as the response to the petition to reopen the railway route through Woodhead Tunnel:

The Government is committed to the growth and development of the railway. This is reflected in the White Paper Towards a Sustainable Railway (Cm 7176) which was published in July 2007 and commits to £15 billion in total Government support to the railway for the period from 2009 to 2014.

The Government’s priority over this period is to increase rail capacity. This is necessary to allow the network to cater for the steady growth which has seen the number of passenger journeys exceed a billion in each of the last three years. With this in mind, £10 billion out of the £15 billion promised in the White Paper will be devoted to measures designed to increase capacity.

The White Paper commits to a range of specific capacity-increasing measures including 1300 new carriages to be used on the most congested lines in the country and major improvements at a number of individual stations. It does not commit to any line reopening because these are not the most effective way of securing the early capacity increases that are the most pressing need for both passengers and freight operators.

This does not mean that the Government is against the principle of rail reopening. Where local and regional authorities are prepared to take the lead in drawing up a proper business case for reopening a particular line or stations and identifying funding, the Government will carefully consider the case. This applies to the Somerset and Dorset as it does to any other line proposed for reopening.

Having reduced railway capacity systematically since the 1960s in order to reduce costs we are now told the government priority is to increase the capacity of the railways, not reopen closed lines. Perhaps next time the Ministry for Transport plans a new road we should argue that its priority should be to increase capacity not build new roads? Meanwhile volunteers are working on acquiring and restoring various sections of the old S&D. One group has made a start in restoration work Shillingstone Station which is where today’s post originally began!

From little beginnings mighty railways grow. Volunteers at Shillingstone

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One Response to “Weasley words from Westminster”

  1. Sunshiner Says:

    We’ve had an excellent write up in a Polish railway blog.

    After reading about the S&D take a look at some of the other features and see how a blog should look! I spent some time in Poland in 2004 and loved it. We saw the big standard gauge engines at Wolsztyn and were held up by one of them on the day we left at a level crossing – pulling a real service train.

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