It’s Time to Rebuild Britain’s Old Railway Lines

By making Britain more connected, this ensures that any 'Green New Deal' works for all.

“Choo f**king Choo” – Steve Fleming

The next Labour government will face multiple crises, and to be honest in the long-term Brexit is not one of them. Regardless of whether we leave the European Union we will still have to deal with a legacy of Tory austerity and industrial policy (if we can call it that) since the 1980s that has led to the decline of manufacturing and a stagnation in living standards. Though our economy may have nominally grown over this period, GDP has increasingly become a statistic that has become divorced from people’s lived realities.

Nowhere is this felt more than in Britain’s rural areas, which overwhelming voted to leave the European Union. The socio-economic effects of the continued decline of working age populations in villages in towns are clear for all to see; communities are being destroyed and the countryside is becoming the preserve of the rich.

On top of this we must contend with the largest threat that humanity has ever faced. In 2018 the IPCC announced we have possibly as little as 12 years to prevent global warming exceeding 1.5 degrees. If we fail in this endeavour many ecosystems that we desperately rely on that are currently on the brink of collapse will no longer be able to take the strain of rising temperatures.

As UCL economist Mariana Mazzucato argues, these problems require a mission-led approach. We must treat tackling climate change like a moon mission or a war – the state must lead from the front to cajole the private sector into action in the national and global interest. This is what the Green New Deal means: transforming the state and the economy in order to halt climate change. This transformation is what makes it possible to build up a coalition of working class and environment interests, because we need to invest in skills, jobs, green infrastructure and the sustainable technology sector in order to make this green transition a reality.

Part of this means we need to change the way we travel, switching from private petrol-powered vehicles to public transport that uses clean energy. But while projects like High Speed 2 might allow those in the cities who have access to the benefits of globalisation to improve the way they travel, our current focus on the needs of sectors of the economy such as finance at the expense of towns, villages and green manufacturing will not solve either climate change or the social ruptures that led to the Brexit vote.

Instead we need to connect up communities that were left isolated after the Beeching cuts in the 1960s. This would be an approach rooted in serving the needs of local people and recreating a sense of place that marries with our environment agenda. This sort of transformation has recently taken place in the Scottish Borders, where because of a new railway to Tweedbank young people are once again returning to rural areas. 64% of users of the line previously made their journey by car.

A joined-up national programme to reopen old rail routes would give the rail industry more confidence, driving down costs for individual lines. Furthermore, if the bulk of planning permission and compulsory purchase orders for the lines were granted by a Parliament, acting in partnership with local authorities, many of the delays and convoluted barriers that currently exist for new infrastructure projects could be avoided.

Identifying which lines to reopening is relatively easy. We should start with the routes given deemed to be a priority by the Campaign for Better Transport and we should start breaking ground as soon as we get into office.

Though mine is a vision deeply rooted in nostalgia, I am nonetheless deadly serious. To save our planet and our country we need a Green New Deal that works for rural communities, driving industry, jobs and power from the cities into towns and villages. These aims will only be reached if we rebuild the efficient arterial routes that were once the life blood of our country.

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