Rail 525: Cost and complexity create a high-level bias against rail

The latest restructuring of the railway has made it much easier to cut lines, stations and services – and harder to open new ones, according to CHRIS TIAN WOLMAR.

One of the little noticed consequences of the recent restructuring of the railways is that it has become a lot easier to close a railway than to open one, or even than to improve an existing one.

Look what is happening around the network. Proposals for cuts and reductions in services are springing up in unexpected quarters, and the idea of busways replacing some rail lines is being given credence in Whitehall . Yet, enhancements are becoming increasingly difficult to introduce, not least because of the number of players involved in any scheme.

Let’s consider the cuts side first. Looking around the country there are several proposals for closures and reductions and they come from different sources. We have just seen the romantic sounding Etruria station closed, the first since, I think, Wrexham which was moved nearly a decade ago. The Wolverhampton – Walsall service has been dropped and now we hear that the line between Severn Beach – Bristol is due to be replaced by a bus or a guided busway.

Indeed, the Government Office for the South West appears to be particularly antipathetic towards rail and is suggesting other closures and replacement by ‘Rapid Transit’ – i.e. buses in the area (though to be fair, also some improvements such as a fourth platform at Bristol Parkway);

The plan to cut back services in the Northern franchise is also now being revived. The commissioning of a consultancy report on this was leaked before the election and quickly shelved, but now with Blair and his gang safely back in office, the train services in the area will be re-examined with the prospect of quite severe cuts in the offing, even though this is Labour’s heartland.

Finally, there is the idea of scrapping the sleeper service to and from Penzance . This was put first mooted the specification for the new Great Western franchise with the suggestion that the service was not value for money. Here the response has been particularly vociferous with a big campaign being mounted, reminiscent of the Deerstalker Express battle successfully won in the early days of franchising or even the Carlisle – Settle fight, another victory.

Indeed, the Penzance sleeper has a lot going for it. The trains are well used and it is an important service for the area of the country with the worst transport links on the mainland. Moreover, the main alternative for business people to down to Plymouth – or indeed up to London from the South West – the Ryanair service to Newquay is being cut back and may be scrapped altogether. And, as with all these services, the real cost is an unknown. As mentioned many times in this column, one of the real failings of the present structure is that despite the promise that privatisation would make the railway’s economics more transparent, the opposite is the case.

Note how these ideas come up in different ways; Route Utilisation Studies, franchise specifications and the Department for Transport. That is a result of the fragmentation of the railways and is illustrative of a wider problem. Under British Rail, the government set the overall budget and it was up to railway managers – the people on the ground – to work out how best to make savings (or indeed expand services). Now these savings are being made in a vacuum. It is unclear who will benefit financially from them. The economics of the railway have simply become too complicated, with far too many stakeholders, both public and private.

For example, the closure of Etruria is supposed to make running trains on the West Coast Main Line more reliable. But if that is the case, then Virgin may well end up having to pay less in performance penalties and therefore simply pockets any savings made from cutting back the local trains. It is extremely doubtful that Virgin’s contract (currently being run on a cost plus basis anyway) will reflect these savings in such a way as to benefit the taxpayer. So frankly, in terms of returning money to the Exchequer, they are a waste of effort.

The process of making these cuts has been streamlined. No longer are lengthy negotiations required with the local Rail Passengers Council Committee since these have been abolished. It is interesting that responsibility for suggesting and making them has largely been devolved to Network Rail (now in charge of Route Utilisation Studies), Passenger Transport Executives (who are being given an overall budget) and Government Offices in the regions which are setting overall transport responsibilities even though, unlike in Scotland and Wales, they do not have elected bodies to whom they must be accountable.

Moreover, there is no overall strategy on what kind of railway is needed and how best to get there. It may, indeed, be a good idea to close smaller stations on main lines – that happened on the East Coast 40 years ago which is one of the reasons trains travel so quickly on it. It may even be that on some routes a bus service is the only viable future. However, this needs a discussion and a debate, not a few stealth cuts.

It is possible to take a benign view, arguing that in terms of the overall usage of the railway these reductions are insignificant, barely making the tiniest dent in the billion plus number using the railway annually. However, this seems to be far too optimistic. The Department for Transport and the Treasury have made it clear that cuts of £1-£1.5bn in the railway’s annual budget are expected to be made in the next few years.

Contrast this with the difficulty of getting extra use on the railways. Tad (Father) Deiniol, an orthodox priest in Blaenau Ffestiniog contacted me recently about his frustration he feels in getting a rail project off the ground which seems to have everything going for it: creating jobs, economically sound, environmentally useful and make use of an existing asset, the Conwy line linking Blaenau with Llandudno.

Three years ago, Alfred McAlpine Slate and Freightliner submitted a joint proposal for a Freight Facilities Grant to create a terminal at Blaenau take slate waste to the Midlands by train. The scheme, which had been initially put forward several years previously, involves taking out one or two million tonnes (there are two different proposals) of the slate waste each year which would create at least 50 jobs and safeguard 80 existing ones. The alternative to the railway is having 200 or 400 lorries using the local roads daily, an environmental nightmare.

Around 70 per cent of the funding would come from the private sector but some seed money would be required from the Welsh Assembly and possibly the UK government. However, the line would need to be upgraded and Network Rail originally quoted £200m to upgrade it, though that was revised down to £44m and now £17m.

But now, it seems, the Welsh Assembly is reluctant to accept that estimate and is asking for independent consultants to assess it. The supporters of the scheme say that, taking into consideration the whole journey to the Midlands , there would be additional track access revenue for Network Rail of £15m per year to offset the initial investment although, of course, such heavy trains would increase the need for track maintenance. Meanwhile, the proposal languishes, almost a decade after it was first suggested and Blaenau remains a blighted town, having lost much of its traditional industry.

The Conwy line was washed away in floods last year and NR spent £5m on reinstating the embankments. Although the line currently serves little purpose with few passengers – I travelled on a near empty train a few years back and though it is clearly a useful link for local people, it is an expensive form of transport to maintain – NR had to bring back the track into use because of its statutory duty but it appears reluctant to take on the task of improving the line to the standard required for the slate traffic which highlights just how difficult it is to push through enhancements on the railway. And that’s the nub. The system mitigates against improvement, though cutting services and lines has now been made easier.

Here is another interesting illustration on the difficulties of expanding the railway. Several local councils have supported the reopening of the Ashington Blyth and Tyne line in Northumberland to passenger traffic. As ever, a whole host of bodies have been involved: The Government Office for North East (which rejoices in the acronym GONE), the Department for Transport, the Strategic Rail Authority, Network Rail and the European Regional Development Fund.

Yet, the local authorities pushing for the scheme were unable to meet ministers to discuss the issue because the matter was within the remit of the SRA and civil servants effectively barred access to the politicians. The advice from civil servants was that Local Transport Plan money (which local councils receive from central government to invest in transport) is not available for heavy rail schemes except for items like stations which relate to integration with other modes. Moreover, the advice warned against ministers treating these schemes favourably: ‘given the number of rail schemes being recommended by Multi Modal Studies, we are concerned that if we set a precedent of funding large proportions of heavy rail schemes, both local authorities and the SRA will increasingly seek to rely on LTP funds to implement such schemes.’ In other words, we would rather councils did not spend their money on supporting rail schemes.

In effect, this rules out all sources of funding for the local councils. They cannot get money from the SRA (now, of course, the Department for Transport), and nor can they raise it through their LTPs. So despite the fact that local voters clearly wanted to see the line reopened, there is little prospect of it ever happening. As my informant for this story put it, ‘no wonder people don’t bother to vote in local elections’.

What is so worrying about these trends is that they are emerging with no real discussion of the wider consequences. Essentially, there seems to be a bias against rail created by the complexity and cost of the present system. But ministers do not dare say that publicly because they know that expanding the railways is almost universally popular. So instead, worthy new proposals get stuck in the treacle, wasting the efforts of thousands of good people. Meanwhile, wherever there is a possible weak link in the system, plans to shut it down without proper discussion are quickly drawn up. Be warned.

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