My recent travels to London have served as a reminder of one thing that The Railway does very well, and that is the ability to be less than open with the travelling public about service changes, and particularly closures. It is a habit which, as I’ve noted previously, was honed in the 1950s - well before the Beeching Report – and has continued since.
The reminder I received when en route for the capital was when the train passed through the station near the village of Norton Bridge. Had one not been watching Network Rail (NR) closely, and merely relying upon information from their online journey planner, the impression might be given that this station was open.
But it isn’t. Norton Bridge station consists of a single island platform, flanked by running lines. The means of crossing those lines was a footbridge – but this was recently dismantled and has not been replaced. Nor is there any intention to replace it. A bus service has been substituted: nearby Stafford is now half an hour away, rather than six or seven minutes.
There is, of course, a closure procedure which must be followed, but as a replacement bus service has been laid on, the station is officially considered to be still open. But, so what? The French run large parts of their nominal passenger train network with buses. Yes they do. But in the UK, grim experience has taught us that bus substitution is a stepping stone to closure, rather than a way of running marginal services over the long term.
The usual stepping stone on the way to closure is one of discouragement, and for Norton Bridge this box is ticked when one considers the journey to Stoke-On-Trent: passengers have to change buses at Stone (but not at the railway station), and the journey time is almost 70 minutes, rather than 20 or so previously by rail.
It’s entirely possible that the custom on offer at Norton Bridge cannot justify the retention of its station. But, rather than address this possibility and go through the closure process now, NR has embarked on a long and drawn out campaign of softening up – just to make sure. After all, this is the way it has been for over half a century, so why change a winning formula?
[Winning, by the way, does not refer to the travelling public]