The Festival is at the heart of what makes Cheltenham special. More than 230,000 people come to our town, the home of jump racing, for four days of great sporting drama. And in the Gold Cup we enjoy the highlight of the annual jump season.
It’s big business too. The Festival is worth around £50 million to Cheltenham’s economy. The racecourse brings an additional 500,000 visitors a year to the town over the year, further boosting local businesses.
It’s no wonder then that the racing industry continues to invest heavily in infrastructure. More than £80 million has been ploughed into Cheltenham racecourse over the last 30 years, and work has begun on a £45m project to upgrade it further. There will be a new grandstand, better accessibility for the public and improved viewing areas.
But whilst the racecourse has kicked on, Cheltenham’s rail infrastructure is falling behind. The station itself is in need of modernisation, and the platforms are too short. We’re also not as well connected as we should be. The journey to London, Britain’s biggest economic hub, is just 95 miles. But it takes a yawn-inducing 2 hours 20 minutes. Trains have to wend their way west towards Gloucester before looping through 180 degrees to face in the right direction. The result is an average speed of just 41 mph. And to think that the world’s fastest train in the 1930s was known as ‘The Cheltenham Flyer’.
Cheltenham was of course badly mauled by Dr Beeching. His 1960s report led to the decommissioning of thousands of miles of track, including a line that passed through Cheltenham near where I grew up, and stopped at Andoversford railway station which my mother used as a child.
And whilst we’re unlikely to get that back, there are things we can do. First, Network Rail and First Great Western need to reverse their decision to scrap investment in sorely-needed platform extensions. Second, with increased capacity from the redoubled Swindon-Kemble line coming on stream we need to look again at faster, more direct, services between Cheltenham and the South-East.
At this time of year in particular we can’t forget that Cheltenham is in an economic race of its own. If we don’t provide high-quality facilities for our town and its visitors we risk falling behind. And no one backs an also-ran.