Speaker STEPHEN CHAYTOW FCA
We gathered as winter gloom began to engulf us, with geopolitical events in Israel and Ukraine also casting shadows. But a well-attended meeting started to think about the future, especially now that the northern element of HS2 has been cancelled, releasing a whopping £36 billion for transport projects over the next few years.
Stephen is a chartered accountant and business adviser who started his career nearly 40 years ago with KPMG. Stellar names like Unilever and Betfair feature in his CV, but he’s also supported many voluntary and charitable activities including a Male Voice Choir and a hospice; he was governor of a mainly Muslim school in Southall for 25 years. More recently he came to live in Derbyshire, and like many outsiders noted the lack of transport links.
The thrust of MEMRAP (Manchester and East Midlands Rail Partnership) is to secure the reinstatement of the Peaks and Dales line, to rejoin the current dead ends from the Ambergate junction near Matlock to Buxton via Miller’s Dale. That would involve 36 miles of construction (or reconstruction) of rail line. Ideally they’d like a link via Peak Forest and Chapel en le Frith to the Hope Valley line heading to Sheffield. Currently nine stations are in use along the route; they’re thinking another ten or twelve more, to provide for tourism in the area, while faster trains would have fewer stops. The effect on Buxton, ging access to traffic from the rest of Derbyshire and the south, could be dramatic. There’s nothing like being ambitious.
The line was closed by Barbara Castle back in 1968. In the early 1960s the through passenger train would typically leave Manchester and arrive in Derby 75 minutes later; it was then known as the “Peak Line” with some of the loveliest views in the country. Today’s journeys by car are far slower than that. A century before, this had been built as part of the Midland Main lIne from Manchester to London via Derby. The logic of another through route from the north-west to London, especially now that HS2 is no more, is obvious, both as a contributor to Net Zero by mid-century and a reduction in congestion and car traffic to the National Park. Currently 6 million visitors a year come to the National Park, mostly down the A6. “9 out of 10 visitors to …the Peak District… come by car and it is unsustainable,” said the Chair of the Peak District National Park Authority (PDNPA) in April 2020. Well, quite.
Some parts survive serving local quarries – for example, Peak Forest station is the local quarry office (at Peak Dale, just to confuse us all). Those reinstatements announced recently (Leicester to Burton, Chesterfield to Sheffield) all involve existing freight-only lines, with infrastructure already in place. So some sections might be easier to get going again than others.
The big holdup is the existence of an amenity which was supposed to preserve the railbed: the Monsal Trail for cycles, horses and walkers. It’s spectacular, but different opinions appertain as to its delights – personally I find it boring and hard work, even a tad dangerous as I walk dogs along it with cyclists and horses coming from all directions. Disabled access is problematic. The few refreshment points are packed during the summer with overflowing car parks, suggesting that an increase in leisure capacity is urgently needed. Pressure on PDNPA is an issue: they have declined to become involved. “Their budgets are squeezed,” said Stephen, “which means only minimum maintenance.” The result is visible deterioration to some assets including the Victorian Headstone tunnel.
The answer is to create a ribbon of different trails and hiking paths from Buxton to Matlock thus freeing up the line itself. “Rail plus Trail” is the mantra, though it hasn’t got much further than a slogan so far. MEMRAP would be wise to work with national bodies and charities like Sustrans, Cycling UK, the British Horse Society as well as the County Council’s Greenway Strategy and local cycling and walking groups. At the moment, some locals (and the DCC) are opposing the rail development, but we need both if either are to make progress.
Meanwhile, MEMRAP is developing the rail case in some detail. The economic argument is looking stronger by the day. Stephen quoted from the State of the Park Report, Peak District
National Park Authority, 2021:
- Indicators point to “managed decline”
- Declining population
- Increased community isolation
- Fewer people using public transport
- More holiday and second homes
This analysis produced nods around the room. High Peak and Derbyshire Dales are both more than 30% elderly people, with fewer jobs and opportunities for youngsters here other than seasonal hospitality. A decent reliable rail service could enable more families to live in the area and commute to work in nearby cities. Transport for the North reckons an additional £50 billions in productivity improvement could come from the line alone by 2050, much the same case as for HS2.
To test regeneration MEMRAP have studied other reinstatements, especially the 35 miles long Borders Rail from Edinburgh to Galashiels and Tweedbank opened by the late Queen in 2015. Nobody expected it to be so successful but benefits were accruing even before the line opened as people and businesses moved in. It was soon obvious that demand had been under-estimated; a million people travelled on it the first year and additional rolling stock was required. I’d guess the same would be true here.
The one slide that was absent from the presentation was “How Much Will It Cost?” and when Stephen starts to include it, the next slide should be a piece of string. But at some point the Department for Transport must take over, and their comment so far is that the economic case is “strong.” Borders Rail cost £353 millions ..
Right now MEMRAP are in campaigning mode. Anyone who would like to get involved, please contact Stephen via https://www.memrap.org/ where donations are also invited. They’re affiliated to Rail Future who are assisting with some expenses, but something this big can’t be run on a shoestring forever.