Light at the end of the tunnel?

Exactly 40 years after Dr Beeching took his axe to Britain's rail network, a report published in Leeds yesterday urges reversing the policy. Fantasy, or a sensible solution to the transport crisis? John Woodcock reports.

What do Ripon, Wetherby, Hornsea, Otley and Market Weighton have in common? Or maybe the question should be, what doesn't connect them? The answer, for almost four decades, has been: trains.

It's a story familiar to towns and other communities throughout the country. Some never fully recovered from Dr Beeching's prescription in the 1960s. He recommended amputating much of the rail network to leave what remained healthier.

If only life were that straightforward. Since then Britain has moved on, but often at a crawl as the car became king and roads failed to keep up.

Now, coinciding with the 40th anniversary of Beeching's radical booklet, The Reshaping of British Railways, there are those looking into the viability of a counter-revolution. Not so much reshaping as restoration. Yorkshire claims to be in the vanguard, courtesy of the regional office of the Countryside Agency.

It commissioned environmental planners Transport Research and Information Network to undertake an audit of disused railways, from the Dales to the Wolds, the conurbations of South and West Yorkshire to the flatlands of Holderness and north Lincolnshire.

The study is believed to be the first undertaken in an English region, and yesterday the findings were made public in Leeds. The report's front cover neatly reverses the Beeching philosophy, which accelerated closures begun after nationalisation. The Agency reprints the title of his 1963 work beneath its own 2003 version called Railway Reopenings.

For varied reasons, not least finance, the sentiment may be hugely optimistic. Of the 30 former routes the audit looked at closely, only three are considered short-term potential reopenings – that is, within the next five years. They are the Wensleydale line between Northallerton and Redmire, Clitheroe-Hellifield, and Skipton-Threshfield/Grassington.

Medium-term goals include Malton-Pickering, Skipton-Colne, and several links in the Doncaster and Sheffield areas. The South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive is exploring hybrid solutions based on a tram-train combination.

Looking beyond the next 10 years, the researchers pinpoint the strategic Woodhead line across the Pennines, a revived service to Otley, the Spen Valley Line, York-Market Weighton-Beverley, and the former main line linking Harrogate to the East Coast route at Northallerton or Thirsk, via Ripon.

That was the domain of The Queen of Scots express. She may never reign again, but the prospect of services making a comeback on the line interests, among others, North Yorkshire County Council. Such initiatives would also dovetail with current programmes to assist market towns.

At this stage it's easy to dream because the report makes no mention of specific cost. It many cases it would probably be prohibitive because in some areas not even the former track-bed exists. Subsequent developments have put paid to them, and the idea of rebuilding lines across land with premium values sounds nightmarish. And where would all the extra trains come from when there's a shortage now?

The current climate in the rail industry is hardly receptive to expansion, for all the pressure of campaigners. As the transport specialist Stephen Joseph pointed out in a recent article, while many road improvements are being viewed sympathetically, "public transport developments are mired in delay and confusion.

"The fragmented post-privatised railway has seen huge cost escalation and the Strategic Rail Authority has made it clear that it does not have enough money to keep the existing rail network going, let alone fund any additions to it – indeed, it has suspended grants for small-scale passenger upgrades and for rail freight."

In the York area alone, plans to reopen some village stations have been put on hold. It's not always even about money. As rural communities become extended urban suburbs, a railway line can be a long way from commuters' homes and at a disadvantage to road transport.

Railway Reopenings acknowledges there has to be a serious business case to justify reopening a line, including the contribution it could make to social and economic regeneration, tourism, and easing road congestion.

"Simply reopening a railway because it is 'there' is an argument that will carry little weight with bodies such as the SRA," says the report. But it adds: "A strong regional rail network with frequent inter-connecting services providing high-quality transport links for work and leisure could make a real difference to people's lives and help achieve Government objectives for greater public transport use. Acceptance of existing trends in car ridership and public transport use is a counsel of despair which should – and can – be resisted. It will require political determination and a willingness to invest…"

It bemoans the fact that but for Dr Beeching, Wetherby and Otley would today have successful commuter services. And a key recommendation of the report is that whatever survives of abandoned lines should be protected against further development to aid possible revival in future.

The rail industry's current and revised Strategic Plan back-tracks on last year's ambitions, but may encourage more joint ventures with other bodies.

The Countryside Agency argues that the Esk Valley line, for instance, is vital to promoting "social inclusion and access to employment" between Teesside and Whitby, and the outside support it receives could become a pilot for local management. Likewise, there is community involvement in reviving the Wensleydale branch line.

The report justifies its optimism on the lessons of history. "In the past, railways have been generators of massive economic growth. The middle years of the last century saw their influence decimated by closures and lack of investment as the car took over." Railways until recently became "almost unplugged from the economy, but there's now a recognition we can no longer build our way out of congestion. Rail can offer a way forward.

"The importance of a long-term view cannot be over-emphasised. Had a longer view been taken during the Beeching era, closed railway formations could have been retained in railway ownership and protected from development and loss of the route, and an invaluable transport resource would now be available to the country".

A single image published in the report tells the sorry story. It shows a sign for a development involving East Riding of Yorkshire Council, whose patch is now almost train-free. "For Sale. Former Railway Line".