The latest round of cuts to train services announced earlier this week have raised fears among passenger groups that the ghost of Beeching is stalking the railways again. And they are right to be worried.
The financial crisis in the railways caused by the botched privatisation and the hasty renationalisation of Railtrack means that all options are being looked at by the Strategic Rail Authority and its masters at the Department of Transport. This is the second round of cuts announced by the SRA in the past few weeks and more are on the way. While some of the changes are sensible rationalisations of an overambitious timetable set by Virgin CrossCountry, others represent a genuine loss of valuable services.
But even more important is the climate which this series of cuts is creating. New Labour was supposed to be doing everything in its power to boost the use of rail, with a target of a 50 per cent increase over a decade, in an effort to get encourage people out of their cars. Now the subliminal message sent out by this series of ‘service reductions’ is ‘stick to your car’, because the railway can’t cope with any extra people or trains. This is an unpublicised U-turn by the government which could have very severe consequences for rail users.
The coming year is going to be a bloody one for the railways. Already, the SRA has been forced to cut back on its Rail Partnership Fund, an important source of money for small scale schemes such as station improvements and extra peak time services because of the cutback in its budget. It has also suspended the highly popular scheme of paying grants to companies to shift their freight from road to rail. These cuts have deeply affected morale in the industry which was just beginning to recover from the Railtrack debacle. They have been implemented because Bowker is desperate to show that the railways have a good case to make to the Treasury for extra money in the 2004 Spending Review.
However, his case is being fatally undermined by the soaring costs within the industry. According to the latest issue of Modern Railways, already under Railtrack, the annual cost of maintaining the railway had soared from £1.8bn under British Rail to £2.8bn by 2000. Now, Network Rail is spending a staggering £5bn – more than the total passenger revenue – just to keep the infrastructure in a stable condition because of inefficiency and greater safety requirements.
Therefore, cuts to marginal services are going to be high on the agenda of the SRA and the government. As tonight’s File on Four programme on Radio 4* warns, the pro-railway stance taken by John Prescott, the transport secretary in the first Labour term, has been replaced by a much more pragmatic approach by Alistair Darling, the current incumbent which could result in an attempt to close down parts of the heavily loss making railway. Darling has argued that rail is best at providing inter city services and catering for commuters in big towns, but it is not suitable for the type of sparsely populated areas served by the branch lines which survived Beeching.
As Alan Whitehouse, the BBC’s northern transport correspondent, who presents the programme, found, many branch lines already have such a sparse service that they are effectively useless. With the Strategic Rail Authority suffering a 12 per cent cut to its £2.6bn budget in the forthcoming year, it is bound to look at the least economic services to save cash. If it comes to a choice between reducing frequencies on relatively well used lines and cutting back on services operated by quarter full one car trains every four hours, the choice will be clear. Richard Bowker, the head of the SRA, made it clear in a speech last year that he recognised that buses were often a cheaper alternative to trains which use rolling stock and track which are both expensive to maintain.
That was exactly the type of explanation given by Beeching 40 years ago to justify his cuts. Passenger groups say that these branch lines often provide a vital service to local communities and that the solution would be to hand them over to be run by a combination of local authorities and community groups as happens in many places in Europe.
Of course any attempt to impose Beeching style cuts would be strongly resisted. The railways are deeply loved and already beleaguered ministers will want to avoid opening up another source of opposition. In the short term, the likely outcome, therefore, is a steady drip of cuts over the forthcoming months hidden in press releases sent out on busy days as happened on Tuesday when the SRA made its latest announcement.
But the railway is living on borrowed time. The railway is always highly dependent on the state of the economy and a downturn would immediately reduce the number of passengers, pushing the railway further into the red. By then, unless Bowker is able to show that significant progress has been made in reducing costs, his pleas to the Treasury are likely to fall on deaf ears and quite serious cuts would follow. Those railway lobbyists who consider this is not possible in the run up to an election should think again. After all, if Gordon Brown has to choose between hospitals and schools on the one hand, and the railways on the other, the choice is a political no-brainer.