Rail 505: It’s busy routes not just the branches in the firing line

The furore over claims of a ‘Beeching 2’ for branches is obscuring the real risk faced by heavily used main lines and commuter routes, warns CHRISTIAN WOLMAR.

iven that the government is intent on abolishing the Strategic Rail Authority, it is not surprising that it is virtually impossible to detect a strategy behind its policy on the railways. Nowhere is this more obvious than on the apparent contradiction between the policy on Community Rail – branch lines to you and me – published by the SRA last November and the likely outcome of the franchise negotiations currently taking place in several areas.

The Community Rail strategy sets out to make rural lines more viable by improving both sides of the financial equation, boosting revenue and reducing costs. Revenue can obviously be improved by greater usage, which may involve retiming trains as well as obvious ideas such as better marketing and promotion. However, revenue is such a small percentage of costs that even increasing passenger numbers markedly would not do much to change the lines’ profitability. According to the strategy document, a pilot study of four lines showed increasing journeys by a third would only reduce net cost of the lines by 4%. The key, therefore, is cutting costs.

The SRA reckons that the 50 or so lines designated as community railways (there are problems of definition and therefore it is unclear precisely how many there are) cost around £300 million a year, though that is a guesstimate because it is impossible to disentangle the costs of these lines from the rest of the network since maintenance contracts cover much larger areas.

There is much scope for reducing costs. Maintenance standards can be lowered so that they are tailored to the requirements of littleused routes, operating costs can be cut through greater flexibility, and savings could even be made on rolling stock, but only if there were a radical review of the current system under which even the cheapest train, a two-car Pacer, costs £144,000 a year (of which £48,000 is the capital cost). But £300m represents an awful lot of money and in terms of societal benefit one really has to ask whether it is money well spent. Or at least, in a rational world one would.

But we do not live in one, especially where railways are concerned. As the document says, under the current system, these savings would not go to taxpayers or fare-payers, but simply boost the profits of train operating companies which have the franchises, or represent savings for Network Rail, the supposedly private business whose income is fixed by the regulator in five-year periods.

So while cutting costs and trying to boost revenue are sensible initiatives, they do little to rectify the fundamentally dodgy economics of these branch lines. There are no hard economics anywhere in the plan, not even much attempt to set out the advantages of retaining these lines. The best research is from Somerset County Council which showed that for every £1 taken by the West Somerset Railway, a further £1.90 is injected into the local economy. But the West Somerset is a steam heritage service and it is doubtful whether many of the community railways would show such a strong financial position.

Contrary to some of the coverage in the serious press, the Community Rail Development Strategy is not a blueprint for cutting back on services or bringing about a ‘Beeching 2’ but, instead, a way of trying to save them in the context of a cash-strapped railway. It is, in fact, a triumph for Chris Austin, the ex-BR public relations man now in charge of the SRA’s policy on Community Rail (and incidentally is chairman of the WSR).

But if branch lines are to be preserved, howcome by far the longest part of the Railways Bill, published in December, focuses on closure procedures? On the face of it, this is sensible. One of the bizarre side-effects of privatisation was the closure procedures had to be shown to be very robust in order to allay fears that the break-up of the railways had a hidden agenda of shutting large parts of the network.

Therefore, the railway has become even less flexible than it was under BR, as it is difficult both to add new services under franchising arrangements, or to withdraw them. After the Bill becomes law, it will be even harder to add services since NR will have a much greater say over the timetable, while it will be a bit easier to close a line.

Sometimes lines do become redundant and it should not take expensive procedures to shut them. Should supporters of the railway be upset about the fact that procedures have been made easier? Probably not. I don’t see a big hidden agenda of closing lines and routes. It is all too much trouble and, as mentioned above, any money saved would only find its way into government coffers several years later. There is a greater danger as far as the PTE areas are concerned.

They are to be given less say over what services are offered by their local rail networks, and bustitution will be made easier. There is bound to be a temptation to replace some services with buses if usage is low but, without massive cuts which would be politically unpalatable, the savings would probably be relatively small.

However, the focus of much of the press coverage on branch lines and PTEs has diverted attention from the real risk facing the railway – that services on the main lines and commuter routes, used by the vast majority of rail passengers, will be squeezed in the coming franchise rounds. The East Coast franchise will be a key test. I have little doubt that it will be a ‘plain vanilla’ franchise at best, with the Treasury expecting to extract massive premium payments. This kind of squeeze will not attract the same type of headlines as closing a few ‘chugger’ railways. Yet, in terms of the future of the railway, it is far more damaging. And there will be no railway organisation to defend them.

The abolition of the SRA means Britain, uniquely, will have its railway run by civil servants operating to a narrow costcutting agenda set by ministers. It represents a renationalisation of the worst kind, particularly as there remains the pretence the railways are still controlled by the private sector. It is an awesomely grim prospect, to which this column will return. In sum, therefore, the greater threat faced by parts of the network is in inverse proportion to their usage.

Branch lines, it seems, are protected; regional networks funded by PTEs are at some risk; while profitable and heavily-used routes will be subjected to the rigours of Whitehall bean-counters at their most parsimonious. To paraphrase that famous expression that Jim Callaghan never used: strategy, what strategy?

Taxpayers railroaded?

That is the illiterate headline on a series of ads in the New Statesman and Private Eye. The ads from an organisation called Transport Watch raise that hoary canard of scrapping railways and replacing them with roads for coaches. The ad claims subsidies have soared, suggesting they are now costing every household between £2,000 and £4,000 in a decade and that coach trips between London and Birmingham cost as little as £3 compared with rail fares of £20 to £44.

They argue that 30,000 people arrive at Victoria in the peak hour (on four tracks), while a single express coach lane in New York takes in 30,000 in an hour. Most of this is too nonsensical even to pull apart. Subsidies, even at the current level of £5.4bn, are under £200 a year per household.

Transport Watch obtains its figures for subsidy by setting out the SRA’s wish-list which involves all kinds of wonderful projects such as £73bn on ‘modernisation’ and £9.2bn on the East Coast Main Line, a figure pretty much plucked out of thin air. London-Birmingham coaches are a nightmare to travel in and most currently using rail would turn to their cars, adding to congestion. And the notion you could replace Victoria’s trains with buses, even on dedicated tracks, is so fanciful that it is more in the realms of science fiction than reality. And so on.

The publication of the advertisements is a revival of the old Railway Conversion Campaign, which had its heyday a quarter of a century ago until Peter Parker at the BRB commissioned a study that demonstrated the idea was totally unworkable. In themselves, the ads are not likely to influence many people and can be dismissed. But the very fact that someone – apparently a rich benefactor – is prepared to fund them shows the extent to which the railways are under pressure.

Sure, none of this is likely to happen, but this type of material can colour the terms of the debate and the industry has to respond to such attacks. The Railway Forum has, indeed, prepared a briefing to counter the arguments and has written to the publications concerned, though since they are adverts a complaint to the ASA would be more appropriate.

The question when faced with this crazy propaganda is whether it is best to respond, risking giving it legitimacy, or to ignore it, hoping it will simply sink under the weight of its own contradictions. On balance, the Railway Forum is right to answer the points because otherwise they may gain spurious credibility.

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