Ah politicians! Don’t you just love ‘em. Politics is such a fun game replete with hypocrites, tricksters and fools ( disclaimer – there are a few honourable exceptions!) . In fact, what prompted me to decry politicians is the announcement by George Osborne that he wanted to see an HS3 strung across the north of England, from Leeds to Manchester and possibly eventually Hull to Liverpool.
Indeed, the proposal is not short of merit. The North’s rail network certainly needs investment and speeding up times between the major conurbations is a great idea. A back of the envelope figure of £7bn was mooted, but precisely what HS3 meant was unclear. The description Osborne gave did not sound seem like a new railway that befitted the description HS3 but rather some kind of – unspecified – improvement of the existing route. HS3 is one of these blue sky thoughts that are cheap to express but expensive to bring about – and so far beyond the purview of George Osborne that they are really just a way of attracting a bit of easy publicity.
In fact there are rather more immediate problems facing railways in the North. Just two weeks before Osborne’s headline-grabbing announcement the Department – our dear Department for Transport – also made an announcement about rail in the North. This rather more realistic document, a consultation paper on the future of franchising in the North, is much more sanguine about the future of the railways in the region. It makes very clear, as Insider pointed out in the last issue of Rail that there are some hard choices to be made. In the introduction, it says: ‘This consultation document is seeking views on how best to balance our aspiration for a railway that supports the expected growth and delivers the economic benefits it is capable of, whilst at the same time being an affordable proposition with focused and targeted use of resources.’ In other words, the government wants to cut subsidies and target resources on lines that deliver ‘economic benefits’ which implies that there will be cuts on less-well used routes. There is insufficient recognition of the fact that the railway is not just a matter of fare box income tabulated against cost of services, but rather a key part of local infrastructure and amenities.
To the Treasury mandarins who are more likely to travel in the Amazonian jungle than venture north of Watford, it is all too clear that cuts are needed. According to the franchising document, the subsidy for every mile travelled by passengers on Northern services is 53p, by far the highest of any franchise while even on the relatively better used TransPennine routes, it is 16p. Incidentally, as an aside, I never understood the logic of the Strategic Rail Authority when it separated out the Trans-Pennine services since they provided cross-subsidy which made the economics of the whole operation seem more reasonable – perhaps, indeed, it was with the idea of ultimately cutting back Northern services.
The situation is made more complicated by electrification. I was on BBC Radio Tees recently because politicians in the region are concerned that if Transpennine routes are electrified through to York and no further east or north, then people travelling from Middlesbrough to Manchester Airport would have to change, making the rail journey less attractive. There is a real danger that we will get a two tier railway in the North, with a core of fast routes endowed with investment and a secondary route left to moulder.
The underlying argument that should resources be concentrated on already successful lines implies that services should be scaled back elsewhere. This, though, is the ultimate chicken and egg argument. We all know that British Rail closed ‘uneconomic lines’ by ensuring that they were uneconomic in the first place through a stealth process of cutting back services to make them unviable.
So we have to tread very carefully here. There are many pitfalls for rail supporters. The legacy of British Rail cuts and the campaigns against them has left a patchwork of lines which no intelligent designer would have set out on any rational basis. Some lines, which are wholly uneconomic and of not much use even to local people, survived through happenstance while others, particularly some regional routes, that would be very useful today perished. The Settle Carlisle line, about which I wrote about in Rail 746 is an obvious example of a now incredibly useful line that could so easily have been lost.
Rail privatisation has in fact frozen the existing network in aspic. There have been no significant closures since the railways were privatised, partly because the growth in rail passengers has made the very idea unthinkable, but also because in order to appease campaigners, the process of shutting a line or even a station was made far more difficult than before. Yet, there are parts of the network where even the hardiest rail campaigner would have difficulty justifying the economics. The document mentions that of ‘463 stations managed by Northern, 67 have particularly low levels of use, with fewer than 200 passenger entries and exits per week. 53 of these see fewer than 10 return trips per day’ These figures are from the Office of Rail Regulation which means they are not all reliable but they do indicate a problem. We have to recognise that people now often have a choice of what station to go to and therefore closing some on a line would not even affect many of the small number of users. In effect, since World War Two, we no longer live in a society where people are likely to take a train between two neighbouring villages.
There is deal to be had here. If we are to accept some station closures which would speed up services, then the corollary has to be that there would be more and better trains. The conventional wisdom from government on Northern has always been that savings can only be made through cuts, not through increases in patronage. That thinking has to change and if some compromises have to be made, so be it. Time and again, investment has been shown to be worthwhile – think, indeed, of the Settle Carlisle railway today, or London Overground which has been transformed and has changed radically the parts of the capital through which it goes.
Indeed, elsewhere on the network there are similar debates to be had. Perhaps the toughest will be on the Isle of Wight. This is probably the economic basket case to top them all. The line, operated by 1938 Tube trains, is in desperate need of total modernisation. There was a plan to replace the 1938 stock with 1970s trains now coming off the Underground but they proved to be too complex to adapt (fortunately the exorbitant annual rental of £121,117 plus VAT which South West Trains, the operator that uniquely is also responsible for the track, had to pay are no longer charged by HSBC) . So probably new trains will be needed. An even greater cost would be the replacement of the track and trackbed, which are worn out, and strengthening the pier where the train connect with the ferry at Ryde.
The total bill for this is expected to be around £50m for the 8.5 mile long railway, which amazingly is the remnant of what was once a 55 mile network. Currently there are around one million users per year for the twice hourly service, contributing just £1m which includes 300 return school trips daily. Operating costs are around five times the revenue. There are fewer people coming to the island as foot passengers on the ferry, so the figure for all round the year users may decline.
Now it may be that money can be found and that perhaps the local authorities on the Isle of Wight feel the railway is absolutely essential. Certainly carrying the schoolkids seems a very positive experience. In the summer, there is a traffic issue on the Isle of Wight and the railway definitely helps?
On the other hand, there is an opportunity cost – would the money be spent better elsewhere on the rail network? Would it be better to part fund the existing preserved steam railway and perhaps extend it to Ryde. Moreover, we live in a time of austerity and cuts. The local authorities are likely to be hardpressed. My heart says spend the money and create a proper railway fit for the 21st century. The £50m might be like the suggested cost of repairing the Ribblehead viaduct during the Settle Carlisle controversy when it was used as an excuse to try to shut the line. There may be ways of cutting back on the operating costs through modern technology. Investment may be the key to saving the line. Remember microfranchising – whatever happened to that idea?
On the other hand, my head suggests that perhaps there ought to be a careful consideration of the alternatives before spending £50m. My wider point, though, is that not every station, even not every line is sacrosanct. The railway can only prosper if there is a willingness to both open and close lines, to both expand and cut back services. I suspect that in the North, as on the Isle of Wight, these issues will become very real in the near future.
A great loss
I have just heard of the death of Richard Pout, an ardent and learned rail campaigner who was pushing for the London Overground system long before the creation of Transport for London. Indeed, he put forward the idea of a grand outer circle of rail lines around London that has now been realised as demonstrated by the display in Highbury & Islington station offering trains to Clapham Junction going either east or west, and both taking around 50 minutes. There is no doubt that this service, now highly successful and already being expanded, owes much to Richard’s vision and persistence.
Richard was in many respects a pain in the neck. Such vociferous campaigners need to be and the world needs more people like him. He went to every conceivable meeting where he could promote his case and was always the first to try to get in questions. But he was fantastically knowledgeable about the railway and aware of precisely what could and could not be done.
He lived in a pretty chaotic flat near Crouch Hill station and was, sadly, awaiting a heart operation when he died aged just 65. Sadly missed, he deserves a memorial trainset.