The campaign to reopen the railway line between Skipton and Colne is reaching a critical point as organisers await a meeting with a Government minister. Can they succeed? Peter Greenwood looks into their case.

If you are too young to have seen The Beatles, you’ll never have been able to buy a ticket to ride the 15-minute train from Skipton to Colne. The line shut down in 1970, the year that the Fab Four split up, and for many the two events were equally sad.

These days the journey – via both of Bradford’s two stations and Accrington -- takes an average of three hours, so you just wouldn’t try it; you’d go by car or bus.

The 11.5-mile railway link between Skipton and Colne had survived the Beeching cuts in the sixties, but its subsidy was withdrawn and it hit the buffers in 1970. But if it was reopened, would you use it?

If it was possible to get to Blackpool, Manchester or its airport by train without going the long way round, would you?

And would more of the good people of Lancashire and Cheshire come flooding in to see the delights of Craven if that “missing link” was reinstated?

These are hypothetical questions, of course, aren’t they? Nobody reopens railway lines these days do they? Well, they just possibly might.

The soaring cost of road-building and the changing attitude to carbon emissions are strengthening the hand of a quite extraordinary bunch of people who have pushed a rail link right up the agenda. So much so that SELRAP (Skipton East-Lancashire Rail Action Partnership) is on a high.

You could say it has built up a full head of steam, except that these are not your archetypal train buffs pining for a return to the soot-stained days of Close Encounter.

Andy Shackleton, SELRAP’s liaison officer, says: “We’re not talking about heritage steam trains, we’re talking about linking Skipton with Colne with a trip that takes just 15 minutes. We’re talking about linking Skipton with Manchester in one-and-a-quarter hours, eventually.”

His group has fought a formidable campaign, which has snowballed into a powerful lobby. SELRAP has the support of two cabinet ministers, two ministers, 146 MPs, 46 MEPs, 57 peers and 193 councils across North and West Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cumbria, Greater Manchester and Merseyside.The latter includes North Yorkshire County Council, Craven District Council and Skipton Town Council.

The group’s patrons include five MPs, five MEPs, a bishop and a businessman and its support comes from across the political spectrum. And now the group is awaiting an imminent meeting with Rail Minister Lord Adonis, confident he will promote the case to Secretary of State Geoff Hoon.

All the preparatory work has been done. Consultants have produced a report showing costings and feasibility. Its key messages were that the trackbed had been kept safe from development; there would be strategic and regional value for North and West Yorkshire, Leeds, Manchester and central Lancashire; the reinstatement is feasible at a cost of £43 million for single track or £81 million for double; projected passenger figures stack up; it would be value for money, reduce road accidents, bring environmental benefits and give help to areas of high deprivation.

Network Rail would provide no stumbling block. It has said: “In a scenario of high mode-shift from road to rail, additional sources of investment funds could become available, in which case the route between Colne and Skipton could be a candidate for addition to the network.” In other words, if there is the political will, the line can reopen. And Network Rail added, more succinctly: “If this line was open we would be using it.”

Both Lancashire County Council and North Yorkshire County Council support reopening the line, which passes south of Broughton, north of Elslack, south of Thornton-in-Craven and up to the Lancashire border and Earby. The route is mostly still free from development and both councils say their policy is to promote public transport at the expense of cars.

Support for SELRAP is immense, but there are dissenting voices, particularly in South Craven. Cars and trucks heading from North and West Yorkshire to Lancashire clog up the road through Cross Hills and Glusburn – and a tedious drive that can be, across railway level crossings and through bottlenecks.

A long-mooted single-carriageway Colne-Earby bypass, further along the road into Lancashire, would not stop the jams at the Yorkshire end, though its adherents prefer the idea to getting the trains running again.

Coun Roger Nicholson, chairman of Glusburn and Cross Hills Parish Council, has said: “We shouldn’t be talking about railways until the highway authorities look at the roads first. My main concern is the volume of HGVs going through our village. At the moment, our roads can’t cope with it.”

Philip Barrett, a local county, district and parish councillor, has said that while the chances of a Glusburn bypass are slim, a bypass for the A56 from Colne, past Lancashire villages Foulridge, Kelbrook and Earby and through Thornton-in-Craven in North Yorkshire, is still a possibility.

“Although local bypass schemes have gone out of favour with the Government, the bypass in East Lancashire has been on the cards for a long time and it’s time that people living in the villages along there are asked about a railway or a bypass,” he has said.

“It’s all right for local MPs to jump on the ‘green wagon’ to support the railway, but you have to think about it realistically and everything has to be taken into account. Finance is a big thing and road infrastructure doesn’t seem to rank on the one-item agenda of pressure group Selrap.

“The potential reinstatement of that line will have a negligible influence on improvement of traffic in South Craven. For all intents and purposes, the A6068 is an HGV route. It’s a quicker rat-run for HGVs coming from the M65 and it’s flatter than the A56.”

But David Curry, MP for Skipton, has said the railway and highways issues are separate. “I’ve supported the railway from the beginning, but there are still serious questions about it,” he has said.

“We have to ask how important is it to Lancashire and Yorkshire? It’s a big-ticket item and one that’s not going to be delivered quickly. The railway link would only get built if it was going to have a positive impact on economic development. SELRAP has made a valiant attempt to get that argument across. They’re not just a bunch of trainspotters, they are serious people.”

Mr Curry said the choice between a railway link or a bypass was a dilemma facing both Lancashire and North Yorkshire County Councils, which have to decide transport priorities. But county councils, traditionally, have favoured roads over railways and, although North Yorkshire and Lancashire have said they support the rail link, it’s not their top priority.

But there’s a loophole for SELRAP: the Government can decide that a transport project is a special case and push it through, past the county councils, and that’s the door SELRAP is pushing at.

SELRAP’s Mr Shackleton says: “A railway line never gets to the top of the heap with county councils because they are more interested in roads, even in these days of concern about climate change.

“But there is now a precedent for the Secretary of State intervening. Rail Minister Lord Adonis has just bypassed the system and moved a rail project in Swindon to the top of the priority list. We are awaiting an appointment to see him.

“We know some people worry that if the line reopens, we won’t get the bypass. But we’re not campaigning against that road, we just think it will never get built.

“It may be the case that, if the rail line reopens, the bypass will be unnecessary. Taking the train will be faster, more comfortable and more convenient.”

He talks of the traffic from Leeds to Lancashire, too. At the moment, that adds to the jams around Cross Hills. The trains could take many of those people and some of the freight off the roads.

“As the roads system gets worse and worse, just think, the people of East Lancashire could have a trip to the Dales without having to drive,” says Mr Shackleton. “It’s the missing link in our rail system.”

Should the line be rebuilt – “WHEN, not IF,” he says – unsurprisingly, he would prefer the more expensive double track option. The “worst scenario” capital cost of that would be £81 million, with the cost of electrification to be added. There would be ongoing costs of servicing and rolling stock.

It’s a lot of money. And Britain’s railways are subsidised to the tune of £5 billion a year, though other European countries pay relatively more to provide a better service.

“But we’re bailing out the banking system and that costs many, many times £5 billion,” says Mr Shackleton.

Then he gets technical. The Department For Transport calculates the desirability of projects using Benefit Cost Ratios (BCRs). This measures a scheme’s unavoidable costs set against the total benefits. The maximum BCR for a single-track line could be 2.43:1 or, as Mr Shackleton puts it: “In other words, for every pound spent on reopening the route and providing train services on it, the quantifiable benefits for doing so would be £2.43.”

Even the double track option would have a BCR of 1.53:1, says the consultants’ report. And the figures include a 66 per cent “loading” – a kind of contingency to allow for inflation and unexpected extra costs. Passenger estimates are calculated at 565,000 a year by the year 2014 and 759,000 a year by 2024 – generating an income of £2 million.

There is a well-documented link between upgrading rail lines and regeneration, says SELRAP. “If you go down the Aire Valley line and look out of the train window there are cranes everywhere,” says Mr Shackleton. “But not if you travel from Skipton to Colne and beyond into East Lancashire. The rail link would bring more prosperity to the area.

“People in East Lancashire would have access to Craven for work, education and leisure – and vice versa. You also have to take into account the fact that additional employment and visitor spend in the region are worth millions.”

And opening up the Dales to train passengers from Lancashire would take cars off Craven roads and boost the local economy. Conversely, for overseas visitors to the Dales, a day out in Blackpool or Manchester becomes more realistic.

“Reopening the line would also reduce CO2 emissions, reduce the number of road accidents and deliver environmental and safety benefits of between £7 million and £12 million,” says Mr Shackleton.

Then there’s the savings to be made by taking traffic off the roads. The Confederation of British Industry calculates that road delays cost UK business £20 billion a year.

Alan Beswick, director of JMP, the company that carried out the feasibility study for SELRAP, has told them: “You appear to have a business case, even based on some deliberately conservative assumptions.” Andy Shackleton hasn’t finished putting his case yet, though.

“There are wider benefits, including social inclusion,” he says. “Of the 279 local government wards in the area bounded by Shipley, Skipton and Blackburn, 148 are among the most deprived 25 per cent nationally. And poor transport provision reinforces social exclusion and undermines the quality of life.

“In deprived areas – which includes rural as well as urban areas – road accidents and emissions are an issue. More people don’t have cars and there are problems with access to health care and education. For instance, the rail link would open up Craven College to people in East Lancashire.”

Indeed, the college’s principal, Alan Blackwell, has said: “The college believes that the twin demands of an ever-increasing consumer choice and environmental factors are making an overwhelming case for the line to be reopened.”

Robert Heseltine, a Craven district councillor as well as a county councillor, is typical of the many who agree. He wrote to SELRAP: “I have strongly supported your campaign since its inception and now, formally and publicly and in writing, pledge my full support. I would stress my support is because of the trans-regional economic importance of this strategic rail link.”

Westminster supporters include Blackburn MP and Justice Secretary Jack Straw, who said: “I strongly support the reopening of the Colne/Skipton railway line and, along with the other East Lancashire MPs, will do all I can to help.”

Whether the Government’s attitude to the recession will mean fewer big public projects, to save money, or more, to create jobs, Andy Shackleton is bullish.

“SELRAP has, so far, met every specification required,” he says. “We’ll get there. It’s just a matter of time.”