When Wisbech fought to save its passenger railway

PUBLISHED: 15:52 16 December 2017

This special excursion train on September 23 1978 was the first passenger train to leave the old Wisbech Station for ten years. Passengers were waved off by the deputy town mayor Fedor Rikovsky. Picture: Archant library (c10564)

This special excursion train on September 23 1978 was the first passenger train to leave the old Wisbech Station for ten years. Passengers were waved off by the deputy town mayor Fedor Rikovsky. Picture: Archant library (c10564)

Recently there have been calls to re-open Wisbech’s rail link. Fifty years ago, EDP contributor ‘D.B.’ was trying to rally townsfolk to save passenger services...

Wisbech Station: In June 1967 EDP correspondent 'D.B.' tried to rally townsfolk to fight to keep passenger services open. Picture: Cambridgeshire County CouncilWisbech Station: In June 1967 EDP correspondent 'D.B.' tried to rally townsfolk to fight to keep passenger services open. Picture: Cambridgeshire County Council

So they have made up their minds to withdraw passenger services from Wisbech. One could understand the closing of the other station and the line to Peterborough. One could absorb the punishment inflicted by the cessation of the Upwell tram - but the newest blow strikes at the very existence of the Ancient Borough.

Proof that the seriousness of the situation was realised was amply demonstrated by the large and tense crowd that gathered at the Council Chamber for the recent public meeting. It is doubtful whether some new and dramatic turn in the fortunes of the local football club could have drawn a bigger gate. The tone of the whole meeting was sober and solemn. Much sense was talked, although the air was sharp with the smell of defeat.

Over the past years British Railways have slowly run down their Wisbech business, diminishing facilities, eliminating the vital passenger parcels service by switching it to King’s Lynn. If the fact that it is no longer possible to buy at Liverpool Street a ticket to Wisbech is not sufficient evidence, the cutting out of the parcels service is proof that British Railways have already made up their minds - what follows must be, so far as they are concerned, mere formality.

Farcically, a passenger census was taken for a week in mid-January (not a time when anyone who can avoid it takes to the railway). It is, of course, a simple matter to prove any business to be unprofitable by doing little to decrease overheads and nothing to increase revenue - and profitability is not - and never has been - the sole criterion of a successful public utility.

Like many country towns that have no commuter population, Wisbech’s need for a rail link does not fit into two or three watertight compartments. It is created by the sum of a number of circumstances. At present one can catch a train in the morning that goes to Ely where, after a breezy wait, the connection will arrive that reaches London before ten. Under the new system a bus will presumably be caught for March (adding 20 minutes to the journey, if there happens to be a bus capable of carrying the passenger, his trunks and perhaps the family perambulator). The load will then transfer itself to the train to Ely where, after another transfer, the train to London may be caught.

Taking a bus direct to Ely (if there are such things) and cutting out one of the changes would hardly be a reliable alternative, as for some periods of the year the flooding at Welney Wash cuts the Wisbech-Ely road. “But these are not valid objections,” our masters may say. If people and inconvenience and waste of time and money don’t count in these slick pragmatic Sixties, then our masters are right.

The unemotional objection to the closure is the fragmentation it will cause, in many ways, to the life of the town - people who will not take jobs in it because of the lack of proper communications, overspill that refused to move to such a backwood, week-end visitors without cars who cannot face the inconvenience, school children and students whose journeys are made impossible. Heaven knows how much money has been sunk in the College of Further Education. It was never built to serve Wisbech alone - but, without the railway, the students from the other side of the county will not be able to reach it. One remembers, too, the gay and eager groups of students that arrived throughout the summer for the fruit picking camps - not included, needless to say, in that January census.

The Port of Wisbech may certainly achieve a unique position as the only port in the country without a rail link - but at a time when it is beginning to thrive this is not the kind of publicity it would seek. Blood has sometimes to be sent by rail to Wisbech Hospital.

Barristers coming to Quarter Sessions almost invariably arrive by train: now suppose cars and taxis will have to collect them from Peterborough. The list of losers in an upheaval of this sort is endless, but the main one is Wisbech itself.

Before the last ditch is crossed, resistance is still possible and there are three ways in which the Fenmen can show their determination. Every single person who will suffer hardship must appear before the Transport Users’ Consultative Committee - in person; writing a letter is no good. Nor is leaving it for someone else to do. Next, representations of every kind can be made to the Minister of Transport. If these are weighty and plentiful and practical enough, she may even get wind of them.

Finally, the Economic Planning Council can still exert a major influence - depending, of course, on whether or not this Council has it in mind to allow Wisbech to sink into a sort of agricultural twilight. I have yet to hear of any visits to the Ancient Borough by its members and if this is so, it would be helpful if they could soon start making an assessment. All these efforts must be co-ordinated and organised, and there is urgent need for some very potent active and enthusiastic leadership.

The alternative, of course, is simple. We could discount the successes in other contexts of Rutland and West Walton. We could let the passenger services go by default. It takes a grain of greatness to win a battle. Perhaps this is what is missing.

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