The idea of going anywhere by train has left the station – David Behrens

The journey across the width of Britain is among the more pleasurable medium-distance adventures for a holiday weekend. The fellwalker Alfred Wainwright realised this in the 1970s when he created his coast-to-coast route from Robin Hood’s Bay in Yorkshire to St Bees in Cumbria, via the North York Moors, the Dales and the Lake District.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps visits Leeds Station.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps visits Leeds Station.

It took Wainwright at least 12 days to go the whole hog. Had he chosen to go by rail instead, he’d have just about done it in one, but would have spent most of it in a bottleneck around Manchester. Instead of gazing up at Scafell Pike, he’d have peered through a dirty window and seen Warrington.

So the announcement this week that the railway which connects east with west will benefit from a £400m refit is not before time. Transpennine Express, the franchisee whose trains ply the line, has a truly dreadful record of reliability, for reasons sometimes outside its control, sometimes not. That’s academic now, though, because by the time the work is finished its name will have been consigned to railway history, in the same way as coal tenders and stale cheese sandwiches.

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Its successor will be one of a new breed of concessionaires licenced by a public operator to be called Great British Railways, and on Wednesday the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps was wheeled out before the Commons Transport Committee to explain.

Dr Richard Beeching looking at a map of the railways in the 1960s.

He is so gung-ho about the new arrangements that he has allowed them to bear his name, along with that of Keith Williams, whose review of the current system formed their basis. Given the recent record of the railways in this country, this is a high-risk strategy; the only other surname synonymous with trains is Beeching, and that’s usually followed by the word ‘axe’. Will the Williams-Shapps Plan be another hostage to history, I wonder.

But the Minister is right to have identified the Transpennine route as overripe for improvement. With the Behrens family shortly to be placed at precisely opposite ends of it – Mrs B and I on the coast beyond Hull and our son in Liverpool – we ought to be pricing season tickets for weekend trips right now. But why would we, when it’s quicker and cheaper to drive?

The train from Liverpool to Hull takes an average of three-and-a-half hours and costs around £66 per passenger. The same journey on the M62 takes 75 minutes less – even allowing for the Manchester rush hour – and uses £20 worth of fuel, for a whole car full of people. And there’s no need for them to wear face masks.

It raises the question of whether Mr Shapps’ reforms have already been overtaken by circumstances, based as they were on projections of travelling patterns before we discovered that we no longer needed to travel anywhere, except for pleasure. Is an improved Transpennine route still necessary?

Given the state of the service at the moment, I would argue in the project’s favour, especially if it better serves the leisure and casual traveller. I’m not sure the same is true of the costly and hugely disruptive high-speed line – HS2 – between North and South.

Both of these schemes were born of a perceived need before 2020 to connect our great cities. But do we still want to use Victorian technology to do that when Zoom, the communications medium of the 21st century, has done it for us? At a stroke, perhaps two-thirds of business transport has been rendered unnecessary.

If you want proof, look at any commuter station these days. Car parks that used to fill up by 7.30 in the morning now lie three-quarters empty all day. And while there may be a slow drift back, passenger levels are unlikely ever to match those of 18 months ago.

The Network Rail chairman, Sir Peter Hendy, half-grasped this new reality on Wednesday when he admitted to MPs that rail travel in the North was indeed Victorian. Exchanging money for a cardboard ticket was an anachronism, he said.

But it’s not just the tickets that are out of date; the whole concept of getting anywhere by rail has left the station – with Sir Peter back on the platform, watching it disappear into the distance.

There simply isn’t a compelling reason to use the train right now. Whether there will be again depends on how far down the line Mr Shapps is prepared to meet passengers half way. In the meantime, I think I’d rather follow Wainwright and walk across England to see my family.

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