Contribution to the Cotswold & Malvern Line Newsletter
The Cotswold Line Promotion Group was a revolutionary organisation when it was set up – and the reason, curiously, why I went into politics and ended up as Transport Secretary!
The revolutionary idea was that rail users should mobilise not just to lobby for a better service but to help provide it in practical ways. Gandhi urged his followers to ‘be the change they wanted to see in the world’ – and the CLPG literally did that, including shelters on Honeybourne platform, parking at Hanborough, a bus from Kingham to Chippy – for the non-Chipping Norton set who didn’t have Chelsea tractors (there are still a few left) and so much more.
I became involved as a schoolboy at Kingham Hill School, a Dickensian boarding school a few miles from Kingham station. I used the train – we took a carriage at the beginning and end of each term, ‘party rate’ – and was worried that British Rail was going to stop it. It was the late-1970s, England was going to the dogs, and my bit of it that seemed in immediate jeopardy was the lifeline from my school to London, where my Dad lived. He was a postman and never left London – except occasionally to fly to Cyprus, from whence he had immigrated – hence my name. He certainly wasn’t driving 85 miles to pick me up from the ends of the earth. (The first time I arrived at the school, near the hamlet of Cornwell, I thought I was about to meet Daphne du Maurier’s rum smugglers!)
I was interested in trains – not as a train-spotter, but because of my fascination with public transport and how it could be improved. I used constantly to rewrite bus and train timetables to improve them, and I sent Sir Peter Parker, then British Rail Chairman – the job I wanted above all as a 14 year-old – my suggestions for a much better timetable for the Cotswold Line, including a one hour four minute standard journey time from Kingham to London, with a late train from London back to Worcester so people could go to the theatre. The best timetabled time for a 125 from Oxford to London was then 42 minutes, so I couldn’t see any reason why it couldn’t be an hour and four minutes to Kingham if they improved the track and took out the ridiculous padding!
Anyway, I decided to do something to stop British Rail destroying my life and my school, so when I saw a poster for CLPG on Kingham station, I wrote to the Secretary and he invited me to come to a committee meeting in a pub in Moreton (the first pub I ever went into). The issue then was fighting British Rail on its plan to end all through trains to London. BR was claiming not only that they didn’t have the money to replace the worn single track near Charlbury – for the princely sum of £1 million, I seem to recall – but that since no-one much used the trains anyway, the big Class 50s with eight Mark 2 carriages in tow weren’t needed and the odd DMU would do fine. This argument was a straight lie, worthy of today’s Brexiters, so I decided to start counting the numbers on the trains going through Kingham to prove BR wrong. I gave the figures to Julian Palfrey, who I hope did something useful with them, and I also kept writing to Sir Peter Parker and Neil Martin MP – David Cameron’s predecessor but about three as MP for Witney.
Of course, I didn’t realise the real reason the through trains survived: because Sir Peter Parker lived at Minster Lovell near Charlbury. I’m sure he was hugely relieved to have the CLPG making the case for his train to and from the office being preserved. There is a moving plaque to him on Charlbury station, no doubt also at the CLPG’s instigation.
Anyway, the CLPG does brilliant work. It is a lobbying group, community organisation and social enterprise rolled into one, and it has probably done more to promote the Cotswolds and its economy over the last 40 years than any other organisation, including Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire county councils. The excellent train service, redoubled track, and booming traffic, are a testament to its outstanding success, and hundreds of past and present committee members should take very great pride.
As for me, I went on to Oxford University, kept agitating for improved train services, went into politics, became Secretary of State for Transport (British Rail was long abolished) … when the event which gave me most pleasure was formally opening the redoubled track and new platform at Charlbury with David Cameron, then Leader of the Opposition, on a cold November evening to a rapturous crowd of local residents and CLPG activists.
I didn’t do this just for sentimental reasons: I wanted to meet Cameron privately to persuade him to back my plans for HS2, since a change of government was then almost certain, and the CLPG event was great cover for a private cross-party summit. I remember vividly pouring over the maps with him in the kitchen of his cottage in Dean. He said he was impressed – and though he wouldn’t promise support, he understood that something as big as this required cross-party consensus if it was going to happen. Nine years later, construction of HS2 is about to start.
So well done CLPG. You are brilliant. You are creating a better future for your communities. And you are doing it by reinventing the best of the past. By the way, what I really wanted was for the old line from Kingham to Chippy to be reopened. Including Sarsden Halt, which served my school. How about it?