Sorry, Tories, but £500m isn’t enough to reverse the Beeching Axe

Richard Beeching. Axe not shown. Image: Getty.

It is, somehow, only a few weeks since the news broke in Pravda – sorry, the Daily Telegraph – that a Conservative government would “banish the shadow of Beeching”, as transport secretary Grant Shapps put it. Yes, it’s Corbyn in neutral, Beeching in reverse, and Britain going forward (CCHQ – you can have this one for free). All for the cost of, er, £500m. Half a billion pounds to reverse Beeching’s axe, which cut thousands of miles of track and associated infrastructure.

This manifesto announcement passed by relatively unnoticed. There were no briefings on its absurdity from Labour or the Lib Dems, meaning it is left to us, the train nerds, to talk about just how ridiculous it is. The costings seem to have been drawn from a hat; it would fail to address the problems that Shapps says have come about a result of the cuts; and if the number of details were the number of daily passengers, Beeching himself would have ripped up the tracks. 

That's because £500m does not buy you a lot of reopened railway. About 25 miles, give or take, according to railway engineer Gareth Dennis. He suggests that reopening railways costs around £20m per mile. Or there’s the cheaper option, converting freight lines into passenger lines. But, as Sim Harris of Railnews points out, you’ve still got to pay for new stations. In summary: “It would cost far more than that to really reverse Beeching.”

Before and after Beeching. Click to expand.

Furthermore, it is not £500m of new money. In fact, just half of it is new cash, pledged for 2020-21, with the other half coming from Network Rail. In a reversal programme, £500m barely gets you the “G” in “Gnihceeb”. 

For context, another programme that would receive £500m – in this case of actual new cash – is the Potholes Fund. And that’s £500m each year for four years, as opposed to the single year outlined in the Conservatives’ spending plan.


The Potholes Fund is something John Major would be proud to announce in his manifesto, albeit with a telephone hotline too. Both policies are concerned with endemic problems in the country’s infrastructure, and both fail to approach the root cause: years of “spending reviews” at cash-strapped local councils which have seen cuts to road maintenance and local bus services. So £500m may get you a bit of railway, but it won’t pay for the joined-up public transport infrastructure necessary to get people to the stations – although it could get you a lot more busses, increasing their frequency and extent.

Unfortunately, the clear problem with the figures doesn’t matter to the core audience of this policy. It’s an announcement for Telegraph-reading Boomers who nostalgically remember when you could take a train just about anywhere, not CityMetric-reading nerds. Of course, they drive now instead of taking the train, hence the potholes fund.

Even if a more sensible spending figure was found, this idea would still face significant problems. In the years since Beeching’s axe, many railways have been re-purposed, as bypass roads and cyclepaths. Sustrans, a walking and cycling charity, opened its first route on an axed railway line between Bristol and Bath converted into a tarmacked path for pedestrians and cyclists. “Rail trails”, as Claude Lynch wrote earlier this year for CityMetric, give people access to green spaces, to a safe car-free zone to become comfortable with cycling, and offer ideal routes for environmentally friendly commutes. What would happen to the heritage railways that have preserved stations and sections of track? And how would new lines connect with HS2? 

That’s all ignoring the elephant in the room as to the operation of the new lines. Who would run them? Would they be electrified? Or would reopened branch lines get handed down “refurbished” Pacers? 

This policy is the equivalent of a Parliamentary train: it’s only of real interest to nerds, it’s the result of lazy politicians, and it is tinged with irrelevant nostalgia. There is a genuine argument to be made in certain cases for lines to be reopened, such as the Portishead to Bristol line. But to claim Beeching’s work can be undone with £500m is ridiculous.

 
 
 
 

The IPPC report on the melting ice caps makes for terrifying reading

A Greeland iceberg, 2007. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body responsible for communicating the science of climate breakdown – released its long-awaited Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

Based on almost 7,000 peer-reviewed research articles, the report is a cutting-edge crash course in how human-caused climate breakdown is changing our ice and oceans and what it means for humanity and the living planet. In a nutshell, the news isn’t good.

Cryosphere in decline

Most of us rarely come into contact with the cryosphere, but it is a critical part of our climate system. The term refers to the frozen parts of our planet – the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the icebergs that break off and drift in the oceans, the glaciers on our high mountain ranges, our winter snow, the ice on lakes and the polar oceans, and the frozen ground in much of the Arctic landscape called permafrost.

The cryosphere is shrinking. Snow cover is reducing, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and permafrost is thawing. We’ve known this for most of my 25-year career, but the report highlights that melting is accelerating, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and marine and high mountain ecosystems.

At the moment, we’re on track to lose more than half of all the permafrost by the end of the century. Thousands of roads and buildings sit on this frozen soil – and their foundations are slowly transitioning to mud. Permafrost also stores almost twice the amount of carbon as is present in the atmosphere. While increased plant growth may be able to offset some of the release of carbon from newly thawed soils, much will be released to the atmosphere, significantly accelerating the pace of global heating.

Sea ice is declining rapidly, and an ice-free Arctic ocean will become a regular summer occurrence as things stand. Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic are already having to change how they hunt and travel, and some coastal communities are already planning for relocation. Populations of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales and other mammals and sea birds who depend on the ice may crash if sea ice is regularly absent. And as water in its bright-white solid form is much more effective at reflecting heat from the sun, its rapid loss is also accelerating global heating.

Glaciers are also melting. If emissions continue on their current trajectory, smaller glaciers will shrink by more than 80 per cent by the end of the century. This retreat will place increasing strain on the hundreds of millions of people globally who rely on glaciers for water, agriculture, and power. Dangerous landslides, avalanches, rockfalls and floods will become increasingly normal in mountain areas.


Rising oceans, rising problems

All this melting ice means that sea levels are rising. While seas rose globally by around 15cm during the 20th century, they’re now rising more than twice as fast –- and this rate is accelerating.

Thanks to research from myself and others, we now better understand how Antarctica and Greenland’s ice sheets interact with the oceans. As a result, the latest report has upgraded its long-term estimates for how much sea level is expected to rise. Uncertainties still remain, but we’re headed for a rise of between 60 and 110cm by 2100.

Of course, sea level isn’t static. Intense rainfall and cyclones – themselves exacerbated by climate breakdown – can cause water to surge metres above the normal level. The IPCC’s report is very clear: these extreme storm surges we used to expect once per century will now be expected every year by mid-century. In addition to rapidly curbing emissions, we must invest millions to protect at-risk coastal and low-lying areas from flooding and loss of life.

Ocean ecosystems

Up to now, the ocean has taken up more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the global climate system. Warming to date has already reduced the mixing between water layers and, as a consequence, has reduced the supply of oxygen and nutrients for marine life. By 2100 the ocean will take up five to seven times more heat than it has done in the past 50 years if we don’t change our emissions trajectory. Marine heatwaves are also projected to be more intense, last longer and occur 50 times more often. To top it off, the ocean is becoming more acidic as it continues to absorb a proportion of the carbon dioxide we emit.

Collectively, these pressures place marine life across the globe under unprecedented threat. Some species may move to new waters, but others less able to adapt will decline or even die out. This could cause major problems for communities that depend on local seafood. As it stands, coral reefs – beautiful ecosystems that support thousands of species – will be nearly totally wiped out by the end of the century.

Between the lines

While the document makes some striking statements, it is actually relatively conservative with its conclusions – perhaps because it had to be approved by the 195 nations that ratify the IPCC’s reports. Right now, I would expect that sea level rise and ice melt will occur faster than the report predicts. Ten years ago, I might have said the opposite. But the latest science is painting an increasingly grave picture for the future of our oceans and cryosphere – particularly if we carry on with “business as usual”.

The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of heating is especially important for the icy poles, which warm much faster than the global average. At 1.5°C of warming, the probability of an ice-free September in the Arctic ocean is one in 100. But at 2°C, we’d expect to see this happening about one-third of the time. Rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, melting glaciers, and permafrost also will also happen faster – and with it, the risks to humanity and the living planet increase. It’s up to us and the leaders we choose to stem the rising tide of climate and ecological breakdown.

Mark Brandon, Professor of Polar Oceanography, The Open University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.