Rural Reconnections, produced by research group Greengauge 21 for CPRE, examines the case for reopening the Exeter-Okehampton-Tavistock-Plymouth route, a key Railfuture campaign objective. It finds that combining the benefit of a resilient diversionary route with those that result from linking up communities and businesses currently cut off from the rail network hugely strengthen the argument for reopening the line. Crucially, valuing these factors properly and taking better account of business losses when a network is temporarily disrupted could have important implications for other lines that are candidates for reconnection elsewhere in the country:

  1. A route well connected at either end is more likely to be successful and of value than a stub-end branch line
  2. Sustainability must be at the heart of transport infrastructure investment
  3. New rail services could mitigate some of the problems faced by rural areas

The report recognises that for both Okehampton and Tavistock, there is a concern about the impact of additional housing provision on infrastructure and services. A new facility such as rail connectivity may be regarded as a mixed blessing. The conclusion to be drawn for other candidates is that there is a need for thoughtful comprehensive planning to ensure that development associated with the rail re-opening meets local needs and that the case for local housing development is articulated more clearly. The reality is perhaps that the housing development will likely happen anyway; the question is whether the mitigating benefit of the restored rail service will happen too.

Top of CPRE's list of candidates is Uckfield to Lewes, which would provide an alternative route between the Sussex Coast and London, another key campaign objective for Railfuture. CPRE suggests other candidates are:

  • Alton to Winchester (Hampshire) – alternative between Southampton and London
  • Bourne End to High Wycombe (Buckinghamshire) – alternative between North Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire to London
  • Stansted to Braintree (Essex) - alternative between Cambridge and Suffolk/Essex
  • Stratford-upon-Avon (Warwickshire) to Honeybourne (Worcestershire) – alternative between Birmingham and Oxford
  • Hadfield (Derbyshire) to Penistone (South Yorkshire) – alternative between Manchester and Sheffield (and a possible route for HS3)
  • Harrogate to Northallerton (North Yorkshire) – alternative between Leeds and North East: while the existing line is not technically a dead-end, it does go round in a circle.
  • Colne (Lancashire) to Skipton (North Yorkshire) – alternative between Manchester and Leeds/Settle
  • Carlisle (Cumbria) to Tweedbank (Scotland) – alternative between northern England and central belt of Scotland.

The report also emphasises that such reconnections work best when routes link effectively into the national network, and when reopened stations are made into sustainable travel hubs with good cycling and bus connections.

CPRE is already concerned that year-on-year funding cuts to rural buses mean that large parts of the countryside will be cut off from public transport by the end of the decade. This creates huge challenges for young people to access training and jobs; for older people who no longer drive to access services; for businesses and tourism industries in areas without rail; and for carless city dwellers who want to reach tranquil countryside. This is supported by the findings of the Greengauge 21 research.

The Department for Transport will publish new guidance at the end of 2015 about how to value the economic impact of transport investment. Up to now the needs of rural areas have been largely neglected. CPRE will be campaigning to make sure the needs of non-urban England are considered properly in future.

Ralph Smyth, transport campaign manager at the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), comments: “This report underlines the many benefits that can ensue from reconnecting rural rail lines and have been ignored by previous evaluations. Many railways were cut back in the 1960s on the basis that they unnecessarily duplicated other routes. But we need them again now to create sustainable development in our rural communities and to provide resilience against extreme weather. Far from being an exercise in nostalgia, rail re-openings are vital to unlocking the potential of rural areas. It’s time for the Department for Transport to value these benefits, so that the countryside can have its fair share of investment.”

CPRE report: Rural Reconnections: the social benefits of rail reopening

Railfuture campaigns: