The lost transport links

Passengers at Blackpool Central station in 1917

Passengers at Blackpool Central station in 1917

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“The ghost of a steam train echoes down my track”, so sang Paul Weller in The Jam’s 1981 homage to mundane suburban life – Town Called Malice.

The romantic and nostalgic vision of rail travel is indeed something which has captured the imagination of poets and artists throughout the decades, with the notion of pretty rural branch lines bisecting beautiful countryside setting the pens of celebrated poets such as Sir John Betjeman and Philip Larkin scribbling furiously during the age of steam.

But on March 27, 1963 Dr Richard Beeching, chairman of British Railways, shattered the source of inspiration for their paeans when he concluded in his now infamous report that the nation’s rail network simply wasn’t working.

Beeching recommended 6,000 miles of largely rural and industrial track should be torn up across Great Britain, to be accompanied by the closure of a total of 2,363 stations.

And, while the Fylde coast initially remained untouched by Beeching’s axe – the effects of its unsympathetic swing were felt in the aftermath.

Ultimately, this meant two things. In 1970 the Fleetwood branch line from Poulton closed to passengers, although it did continue as a freight line for the ICI site at Burn Naze Dock until 1999.

In Blackpool itself the council took the decision to close the Central station in 1964, despite Beeching’s recommendation that North Station be closed instead.

And according to Eddie Fisher, chairman of the Poulton and Wyre Railway Society (PWRS), local authorities up and down the land took it upon themselves to use Beeching as a scapegoat to serve their own interests.

He said: “Blackpool Council at the time didn’t want Central Station to be kept open.

“They felt the station there was on a more valuable piece of land.

“A lot of lines and certain areas in the North West were actually cut away after Beeching, and local authorities took it upon themselves to direct with political pressure the way things should go rather than listen to Beeching.

“Blackpool was one of the biggest culprits for that mistake because North Station is not really ideally suited.”

Blackpool councillor and railway enthusiast Paul Galley describes the subject of Beeching’s cuts as “very close to his heart” after seeing the decline of his hometown of Bude, in Cornwall, while growing up after it lost its station.

He is in agreement with Mr Fisher and believes Blackpool is still reeling from the effects of the decision to close Central Station five decades on.

He said: “Transport is one of the key things needed for economic development so the damage that was done was huge.

“I personally believe the council did just as much damage in Blackpool and it’s something we’ve been paying for ever since.

“I would say they saw it as an opportunity to push plans for the central car park site, and the fact 50 years later we still have a car park there says an awful lot about those plans.

“The fact is nothing’s happened and it’s led, for me, to decline in the south of Blackpool.

“The harder you make it for people to come to your town, the less people will come - tourists want good transport links and businesses want good transport links.

“The sad thing is I think we’re further away now from other cities than we were in the 1950s, which is damning.

“We’re looking at a very expensive Talbot Gateway project to, in effect, repair the 
damage.”

Whether a still standing Central Station today would be thriving, we’ll never know.

But can anything be done to reverse the damage and herald a new age of the train across the Fylde?

A recent survey of commuters at Poulton station by PWRS received positive feedback, with around half declaring they would use a reopened Fleetwood branch line.

The case is now set to be put forward to Network Rail.

Coun Galley also has a vision, though at a less tangible stage, of rail dominating the heart of Blackpool once again.

“Having railway links in the heart of the town centre would bring huge economic development for the area and it’s important Blackpool Council plays a part in putting right the mistakes it made.”

Whether the descendents of Paul Weller’s ghostly train will ever grace a railway in the middle of the resort again remains to be seen.