Home Page A new push for the railway - but who'll take any notice? 12/10/12

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Matthew Hancock
Your Local MP

Hart of the Matter

During the news coverage of what is now routinely described as the West Coast Rail Fiasco, we heard all sorts of political posturing about this and other disasters of management and governance, within the context that rail travel is one of the most important issues in the country.


Like the National Health Service, we were told, it affects absolutely everybody and its failures damage and inconvenience us all.


And I thought: Well, not if, like us, you live in a town some 11 miles from the nearest railhead and 15 from the nearest significantly useful station.


There are quite a few from Haverhill who commute to London via Whittlesford or Audley End but, apart from them, I doubt if many of us have occasion to use the country’s rail network very often.


We have to rely on buses, of which there are not that many, except on the main link to Cambridge. Many of our bus services have to be subsidised by the local council, out of our council tax.


The means of transport of choice around here is overwhelmingly the car (or taxi) and yet we have to endure fuel prices at the high end of the national range, not far short of what you pay in the Highlands and Islands.


As you would expect, there is a groundswell of opinion in favour of improving public transport to and from Haverhill, but this is not reflected by our local councils, who seem obsessed with little tweakings here and there and unable to take in, or unwilling to face, the bigger picture.


For instance we see that Suffolk’s Local Transport Plan is big on improving the bus service to Bury St Edmunds. There is some merit in this because of the need for people to visit West Suffolk Hospital, there is West Suffolk College and there are, of course, people who work in Bury who would benefit.


So it is worth doing, if it can be achieved viably, but it is not going to have a significant effect for most residents.


Likewise we see in St Edmundsbury Borough Council’s Local Development Framework plenty of detail about getting people out of their cars and onto bicycles or foot in and around Haverhill (have they seen the gradient of the hills?), and something small and vague about trying to improve the link to Cambridge.


The elephant in the room which none of these august bodies ever mention in any of their endless policies and documentation, is the railway.


This is because it is widely considered at local government level to be a barmy notion, utterly impractical, ridiculously expensive and impossible to achieve. In fact, it is considered so ridiculous that it is completely ignored while hours of detailed work and pages of detailed reports are given over to the development of cycle paths and footpaths which, I can tell them now, will never be used at the level they expect until the world’s oil reserves run out.


Once a culture becomes as deeply embedded as that of the motor car has become in Haverhill during the 50 years since Dr Beeching’s axe fell, significantly changing it becomes a mountainous task, probably costing more than re-instating the railway.


For a start, no one is going to move here who is used to being dependent on rail travel. The people who live here have been brought up without ever getting used to using trains. In fact, trains are about as foreign a concept to most Haverhill children as cows are to inner city kids.


Of course they use them to get to London once they become old enough, but soon after that they get their first car and from then on the Tube is the nearest they are likely to come to a railway again.


Over the next few weeks that dauntlessly optimistic little group of people who make up the Cambridge to Colchester Rail Project are renewing their efforts to get some progress on re-instating the railway which ran through Haverhill.


There was a pre-feasibility study carried out seven years or so ago which came up with a positive result, and the group gathered the largest petition ever in favour of a rail renewal project in this country, 12,000 signatures, which was handed in on the floor of the House of Commons by our then MP Richard Spring.


His successor, Matthew Hancock, has supported the group’s activities and is among a number of MPs, councillors, council officers and business people being invited to a meeting in Haverhill in November to energise some backing for the next stage, a £46,000 feasibility study.


I wait to see how many councils will bother to be represented. The last such meeting found many attending from some distance away but few from our own local authorities.


The bigger picture is, of course, easier to see from further away. Perhaps the complexities of integrating any such aspiration within their planning policies when they have no faith it will ever come to anything is what discourages them from what they see as a waste of their time.


But retaining aspirations is one thing we do well in Haverhill. Perhaps we should run a book on which we get first – complete High Street pedestrianisation or a mass-passenger transport system, such as a guided bus (or even a railway). The first may be desirable, but the second, sooner or later, will become essential.

David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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