At Bristol Temple Meads, the 1870s extension to Brunel’s original 1841 train-shed is to be brought back into use for the new electric trains to Paddington. Maybe FirstGroup, one of our two Scottish rail-lords, will have a bloke in a stovepipe hat to wander about when it opens. If so, he’s unlikely to admit how badly planned it’s all been, both track and trains. The old train-shed has to be re-opened because the new carriages are too long (a means of economising on wheels) to fit the curved platforms of the current Temple Meads without scraping the sides. No wonder the bold plans of the reckless engineer are proving to be a more inspiring legacy than anything that came between him and now.
Last month’s rebranding of First Great Western as Great Western Railway creates the opportunity to board a GWR train for the first time in 68 years. (That’s not counting in this context the heritage experience of the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway.) It is, according to FirstGroup, “using our history to create history”, capitalising on the past even as a major programme of investment for the future gets underway. Nothing wrong with that, as an idea. The SNP want to bring back an independent Scotland, last seen 308 years ago. We want to bring back an autonomous Wessex, even after 949 years.
There’s plenty wrong though with the investment priorities. Anyone riding in the standing-room-only sardine cans on the Wessex Main Line will know that if you’re not going to London you really don’t count. Bristol could have a proper underground metro system for much less than the £25bn cost of London’s Crossrail 2 scheme, but it chooses not to. The Somerset & Dorset line could be re-opened, re-connecting those counties’ centres to our two coasts, for a fraction of the £80bn being spent on HS2. (In Scotland, thanks to the Scottish Parliament, the 35-mile Borders Railway was re-opened last month for £300 million and passenger numbers are already one-fifth of the predicted annual total.) Instead, disused trackbed and station sites in Wessex are still being short-sightedly built over, to meet London’s inflated estimates of ‘housing need’.
Transport is one policy area where views set down by our founder, Alexander Thynn, in the 1979 ‘12-point programme’ as revised in 1992, remain as relevant as ever. “Provision of a Wessex-orientated transport system to link our principal cities without having to depend largely on routes directed towards London, and with special emphasis on providing a satisfactory system of public transport”. That’s what we said then and there can be no doubt that the coming decades will see ever-increasing expenditure on public transport as climate change and peak oil drive a transport revolution. Away from the private car and back to a familiar model from the last century, less flexible but more sustainable and therefore the only viable option. But if we don’t fight for Wessex and other regions to gain our fair share of that money, the London regime will as usual take much more than the lion’s share.
There’s more than one reason why FirstGroup would choose to bring back the Great Western.
One appears on the face of it to be simply fashion – there’s a 30-year cycle of centralist uniformity versus decentralist diversity that keeps on playing out in post-war public transport in the UK. Is it just the preferences of successive generations of senior management and their marketing advisers, or something related to the investment cycle? Either way, it’s not restricted to trains: some of FirstGroup’s bus interests now operate as ‘The Buses of Somerset’, and like the GWR there’s a new (and locally specific) green livery to replace the garish corporate one mocked as ‘Barbie’.
On the other hand, this could be a more permanent trend, like the worldwide revulsion against privatisation and corporate power. Corporate transport conglomerates have a problem: the public doesn’t support them, with polls showing majority support for public ownership of trains, even among Conservative voters. Going local and regional can be a logical corporate response to that, to build public support for NOT reversing Thatcherism and resuming the leftful course of history. At the very heart of that is being allowed to bid for ever-longer franchises, frustrating any move towards rolling renationalisation.
Building brand loyalty therefore is an urgent defensive measure. FirstGroup’s rebranding exercise aims to position the GWR as something bigger than an individual franchisee and something therefore to be cherished as an opportunity to do things differently. Scotland provides a precedent. The Scottish Government has decided that ScotRail is a publicly-owned brand, to be merely borrowed by the successful bidder that gets to run it for a limited time. It’s a model with wider application, one that preserves a specific territorial identity against pressures for uniformity, whether they issue from corporate spin-doctors or from an Old Labour government. It doesn’t necessarily prevent either pressure triumphing but digging-in is corporate rail’s best chance of remaining involved (though a publicly owned rail network doesn’t have to be uniform: the British Railways of the 1950s wasn’t).
Where this strategy fails to inspire is in its assumption that Brunel’s GWR makes a sensible area for purposes other than getting folk to and from London. It’s no criticism of Brunel’s genius as an engineer to say that this shouldn’t be the basis for defining our regional identity, now and in the future. Posters telling passengers of the plan to ‘give the west its railway back’ and build our ‘great western region’ may make sense in Bristol but they mean much less in south Wales. North-south journeys within Wessex, or north-west to south-east, will remain a low priority. South Wales and ‘Western’ Wessex, instead of better integration with north Wales and ‘Southern’ Wessex respectively, will continue to draw together into some Greater Severnside. The Welsh Assembly won’t go gentle into that scenario, and neither should we.