British Ghost Trains
Not of the Spiritual Type
Ghost trains in Britain are not of the ghostly type, the terminology is used to describe a less mythical and more down to earth situation created by British legal bureaucracy.
What are Ghost Trains?
In simple terms, it’s a legal requirement by train operators to run a train on a redundant route at least once a week to keep that route alive; even if it’s not commercially viable.
As part of their franchis, train operators have a legal obligation to run trains on all routes covered in the franchises agreement with the Government.
Although a particular route might not currently be in great demand, and therefore not profitable, keeping such a route alive is seen by some train operators as resilience in the system and the potential for future expansion.
However, the main reason for running Ghost Trains is that the alternative of decommissioning the route is very expensive, time consuming and bureaucratic process that few pursue e.g. it’s just easier and cheaper to run ghost trains rather than close the line.
Why the UK Runs Trains to Nowhere
Development of the Steam Engine
In 1712, Thomas Newcomen (English inventor) created the world’s first practical steam engine. In 1769 James Watt (Scottish inventor) greatly improved upon the original designs.
However, these were stationary engines, and it was not until 1804 that Richard Trevithick (British engineer) built the world’s first railway steam locomotive.
The world’s first commercially successful steam locomotive was built by Matthew Murray (English Engineer and Manufacturer) in 1812, this was quickly followed by the world famous ‘Puffing Billy’ in 1813, and then in 1814 George Stephenson (English Engineer) improved upon these earlier designs.
It was George Stephenson’s engines that in 1825 operated on the world’s first public carrying steam railway on the Stockton and Darlington Railway, north east England. The line opened on the 26th September 1825, and the following day carried 550 passengers.
Then in 1829 George Stephenson’s world famous ‘Rocket’ won the Rainhill Trials; a competition to find the best engine for the newly built Liverpool to Manchester Railway, in England.
This was the beginnings of the development of the railway network of Britain.
Early Development of the British Railway Network
Following the opening of the commercially successful Liverpool to Manchester Railway in 1829, the building of railway lines across the length and breadth of Britain boomed; the heydays being between 1836 and 1847 when Parliament authorised the building of 8,000 miles of lines.
Each railway line built required a separate Act of Parliament because it gave the railway companies ‘Compulsory Purchase Powers’; but where landowners resisted, the lines were often diverted to less than optimal routes.
One exception to this is Berney Arms train station built in 1845 in the Norfolk Broads. The landowner agreed to sale the land for the building of the railway line on the condition that the Railway Company built a Request Stop on his land so that he could flag down and use the train whenever he wanted.
Berney Arms: Request Stop
Rise and Fall of the Railway Network
From its early development in Victorian Britain of over 8,000 miles of railway lines in 1847 the railway network continued to expand and flourish until the 1st world war in 1914, by which time there was over 23,440 miles of railway lines.
Part of its success lay in railway companies buying up canals (its main competitor for long distance haulage of goods), and letting the canals go into disuse. Many of these canals have in recent decades been renovated and reopened, mainly for tourism and leisure activities.
From the 1st world war to the end of the 2nd world war the railways went into decline, with many branches closing. In an attempt to save the railways, the newly elected Labour (Socialist) Government, following their landslide victory in 1945, Nationalised the Industry e.g. brought it under Government ownership and control. Then between 1948 and 1962 Labour and Conservative Governments decommissioned a further 3,318 miles of railway lines as part of a process to rationalise the network in an attempt to make it financially viable. So that by 1965 there were just 18,000 miles of lines and 4,300 railway stations still open.
Then in 1966 came the biggest blow, when following the recommendations of the ‘Beeching Report’, the Conservative Government closed 33% of railways and 55% of the train stations.
Shippea Hill (Opened 1845): Britain's Least Used Railway Station (Just 12 Passengers per Year)
Recycling Britain’s Redundant Railways
Following the Beeching Closures, some of the decommissioned lines were bought by railway enthusiasts who now run steam trains on them for tourists as a way to preserve the old lines and steam trains.
Also, following the successful purchase by Sustrans (a charity) of the redundant railway line between Bristol and Bath in 1977 and converting it into a cycle path, the charity has since bought up most of the old redundant lines as part of creating a traffic free nationwide cycling network of 16,575 miles that stretches the length and breadth of Britain.
The National Cycle Network (Utilising Britain’s Redundant Railways)
Initiated by the Thatcher (Conservative) Government of the 1980s, the Railways were split into two operations, the rail network (including train stations) and train operators; and then promptly privatised in the early 1990s.
Privatisation, although its pushed up the price of rail fare, forms a major part of Conservative political ideology, and it’s also this privatisation of the railways that has led to the anomaly of Ghost Trains in Britain.
Initially there were 25 train operator franchises, with a view to renew the franchises every three years; although the system has evolved and now there are only 17 franchises lasting for a minimum of 7 years.
In 2003 Railtrack, the private company responsible for maintaining the tracks and railway stations, collapsed. So that side of operation was taken back into public ownership (Nationalised) by the Labour Government. The new ‘Public Company’ (no shareholders) taking over from Railtrack being branded Network Rail. The Labour Government’s policy (when back in power) is to re-nationalise the rest of the railway e.g. by not renewing the train operators franchises as they expire.
Is it time to renationalise Britain's railways?
Revitalisation of the Railways
Ever since their creation the railways have always been popular with the travelling public for getting to work and for leisure; and until their privatisation in the early 1990s was a cheap form of transport.
In 1992, about the same time as the railways was privatised; the Conservative Government stopped building new motorways in the belief that the future in transport lay in the railways e.g. a desire to get traffic (passengers and goods) off the roads and onto the railway network.
Since then, predominantly through private investment initially, Governments have encouraged the revitalisation of the railways. Between 2010 and 2015 this revitalisation programme was boosted by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Coalition Government who, with the help from EU funding, invested heavily in the modernisation and upgrades of the railway network infrastructure; including electrification and the construction of Crossrail. Crossrail is 73 miles of new railway track through London, linking to existing services in the south east of England. Albeit, the minority Conservative Government elected in 2017 has since scaled back on this investment.
Ghost Train Hunting in the UK
Having lived through the modern history of railways in Britain from the last days of steam, the axing of services under Beeching, the privatisation of the railways, and its subsequent revival with funding from the EU for infrastructure Projects, I have written this article from my own personal experiences and knowledge.
I’ve included a few choice videos in this article from authoritative sources to showcase the points made; and the Wikipedia links below are just a few of many sources that provide further supportive evidence of the information and data mentioned in this article.