There’s nothing quite like a sci-fi film to point out the passing of the years. Particularly when the plot is about time-travel. But that’s exactly what some of us Cheltenham 30-somethings might be noticing at the moment. You see, we grew up transfixed by the ‘Back to the Future’ franchise – films about Marty McFly (Michael J Fox) and his adventures across time and space in his DeLorean time machine. What we never seriously imagined though was that 2015, the impossibly far-off year Marty travelled to in the second film, would ever actually arrive. And now it is almost upon us.
The film made a number of predictions. Some were reasonably accurate. Flat-panel TVs, Skype and head-mounted displays are all with us. The relative rise of the Asian nations has come about too. But when it came to transport, and the fundamental business of how we would get from A to B, I’m afraid the plot-writers had a bad day. Flying cars, air motorways, and hoverboards are still some way off.
But what few of us watching in Cheltenham in 1985 could have imagined is that rail travel would have changed so little. Surely connectivity from the town would be better? Surely trains would be faster? At least the station would be more modern? Sadly not. The reality is that users of Cheltenham Spa in the 1980s, including me, recognise all too much about today’s facilities.
1.8 million visitors use our station every year, but even the Council admits that it is “inadequate”. Earlier this year we were told we were on the verge of securing £3.3 million for improved facilities and new platforms. That fell through. And to rub salt in the wounds, Gloucester succeeded where Cheltenham did not, winning £2.2 million to boost their facilities.
Connectivity too remains poor. The journey to London is just 95 miles, but it takes a yawn-inducing 2 hours 20 minutes, and often more. The average speed is just 41 mph. Compare that with the 1930’s, when the world’s fastest train was known as the ‘The Cheltenham Flyer’. And the position is not improving. Only last month, Cheltenham suffered another downgrade as Arriva cancelled their late night connection between Gloucester and Cheltenham. That means that the last train back now leaves London at 8.45pm.
Why do we need to connect better with the South-East? Because it represents a pipeline of potential investment opportunities to support Cheltenham’s jobs of tomorrow. But that pipeline feels at the moment like a clogged artery. It’s doubly frustrating because it does not need to be this way. The rail network is there, including the recently re-doubled Swindon-Kemble line. The problem is that Cheltenham is not winning the argument for getting the benefit.
So, we need to do better. I believe we can. We need to make a stronger case to Network Rail and First Great Western to reverse their decision to scrap investment in the station. Second, we need to build a compelling argument for faster, more direct, services between Cheltenham and the South-East. We have plenty of points in our favour (the Festivals, GCHQ etc) but the arguments need to be properly marshaled and supported by evidence.
We simply cannot afford another 30 years of stagnation. Until we get Marty McFly’s hoverboards, the railway will be central to whether we succeed.