Unnecessarily onerous regulation contributes to the high cost of building railways in the UK, writes David Rudlin
Following our Wolfson Prize Essay nearly ten years ago we were asked to visit the wonderful town of Wisbech, Capital of the Fens. The people of Wisbech were so keen to see their railway reopened that they were willing to be designated as a Garden Town and accept thousands of new homes.
The section of line from March had been closed as part of the Beeching cuts. A town that once boasted two stations and six trains a day to London now found itself out on a limb. Its railways had once inspired the Reverent Awdry, vicar of the nearby village of Emneth to create the Thomas the Tank Engine stories.
Without the railway the town feels really isolated. While we were working there I would get a bus from Peterborough station and travel for what seemed like hours over the featureless fens.
Our Wolfson Prize winning essay had described a process by which the value uplift generated by new housing could be used to fund new infrastructure. Wisbeck was the perfect opportunity to put this idea into practice. The railway would allow people to commute from Wisbech to Cambridge thereby generating demand for the housing and increasing the land values so making the whole project viable.
In my naivety I had assumed that the railway would be the easy bit. It was only 11 miles and had been operating as a freight line until the late 1990s. Since then, some of the track had been used to train maintenance crews so it was in good condition such that in 2002 the cost of reopening it had been put at under £10M.
As many commentators have said, we seem to have completely lost the ability to build railways
How wrong I was. Railway design is governed by the GRIP process (Governance for Railway Investment Projects). This goes through eight stages and, as part of our work, we played a small part in the GRIP 2 study which had a consultancy fee of £1m. By the time modern safety standards had been factored in (no level crossings) and other issues addressed such as buying back land that had been sold off, some of the options were being costed at £160M.
This is the problem with rail – seemingly sensible decisions and safety standards mean that costs escalate beyond all reason. If that is true for a small branch line like Wisbech, how much more will it have been the case for HS2? No wonder that, even before recent inflationary increases, HS2 was costing more than £100M/km where as the most expensive French Line, the one that winds along the Mediterranean coast, came in at £16.8M/km.
As many commentators have said, we seem to have completely lost the ability to build railways. Which is a shame because we used to be good at this. When I travel around the country, I like to impress people by guessing that their railway station was built in the 1840s. It’s a good trick because almost all of them were; the Victorians pretty much built the entire system in that decade, something that is inconceivable today.
However by the late 1800’s problems of overregulation were starting to emerge, which takes us back to Wisbech. As a kid, my favourite character was Toby the Tram, which the Reverent Awdry based on the Wisbech and Upwell Tramway. This was a rural line carrying both passengers and freight that was built in the 1880s. This was done under tramways rather thant railway legislation.
Even though the tram pulled passenger carriages and goods wagons it was limited to 8mph, the rolling stock had ‘cow catchers’ to prevent people being run over and it ran on existing streets. It’s success led to the passing of the 1896 Light Rail Act which reduced the onerous regulations associated with heavy rail allowing rural lines to be opened at much lower cost.
The story comes full circle. While the business case and GRIP 3 study for the Wisbech line was competed in 2020, my Google search tells me that a 2022 study recommending a light or even very light rail solution is being considered by the Combined Authority. This happens to be what we proposed back in 2017 and has the advantage that the line could run through the garden town. By being built under tram legislation rather than rail regulations it would also of course be much, much cheaper. Toby the Tram may yet ride again.
David Rudlin is director of Urban Design at BDP and visiting professor at Manchester School of Architecture.
He is a co-author of High Street: How our town centres can bounce back from the retail crisis, published by RIBA Publishing.