Rail 516: The spectre of cuts by stealth is stalking the railway

The SRA’s announcement on the scope of the Greater Western franchise is an ominous indication of how the railway is going to be chipped away little by little, claims CHRISTIAN WOLMAR.

The squeeze begins. There is not going to be a Beeching style announcement of a massive cut in the railway network with the closure of hundreds of stations and dozens of lines. Instead, it will be a series of little announcements suggesting a service reduction here and a cutback there – stealth cuts as it were.

The recent announcement on the scope of the Great Western is a case in point. Bidders are being asked to consider how much it costs to provide the sleepers between Paddington and the West Country, and the off-peak half hourly services between Paddington and Cardiff. It is clear that this is a first step in the possible reduction of services. The SRA statement said that it ‘is keen to build an accurate picture of the cost of running these services, but no decision on their future has been made’.

The Times reported that the sleeper service lost £1m per year ‘despite being fully booked on many nights’. So, we know that the service is popular but loses money – but so do most rail services. The West Country is particularly poorly served by the road network, with no motorways in Cornwall and has few air links with London, apart from the Ryanair service to Newquay. The sleeper train is clearly an important service for a region ill-served by transport. 
The subsidy figure in The Times is, wherever it comes from, something of a guess. There is no hard information on the real cost of running a train service (or otherwise the SRA would not be asking bidders to provide one!). But say 100 people use the train on average every night, the subsidy of a £1m annually would work out at around £27 per passenger – is that a good deal for the taxpayer?

I would suggest it is, but the important point is that this type of calculation is going to be made more and more frequently as spending on the railway comes under increasing pressure from government. And such calculations will not be undertaken in a spirit of genuine enquiry but rather within the overall framework of making cuts.

This will be presented, as with the West Country sleeper service, as ‘train services lose money’ without a wider consideration of the benefits of the service. If losing money were the main consideration of what train services we should have, we would get left with something similar to what the Serpell report recommended – Intercity and London commuter routes – and even then it is dubious if, in today’s privatised and expensive railway, whether many of the London commuting and intercity services are really profitable.

The other potential service reduction in the Great Western franchise tender document illustrates the other way that central government will be seeking to cut its contribution. There is another obvious candidate to fund these trains and that, of course, is the Welsh Assembly. Here, the SRA’s intention is pretty clear: by persuading the Assembly that the half hourly trains are under threat, it hopes to get an alternative source of funding to provide the service.
This is going to be another feature of the next couple of years: wherever there is the potential for alternative funds, such as Passenger Transport Executives, the Welsh and Scottish regional governments, regional and local authorities in the UK and even Europe, the Department for Transport will be seeking to offload some of the £2bn cost of franchising on them. (Remember that £2bn is an arbitrary figure since it does not include the direct grant to Network Rail and that the overall cost of the railways to the taxpayer this year is around £6.5bn.).

Watch, too, therefore the Scottish sleeper services. There was widespread media speculation north of the border about the knock on effects of the potential closure of the West Country service and I took part in a radio discussion on the issue. There is clearly the expectation that there will be pressure on Scotrail to scrutinise closely the economics of the service but, of course, the franchise has only just been relet and the Scottish Executive is intent on an expansion of rail services and now has control of the budget for franchising, so the sleeper trains are probably safe for a considerable time to come.

The other way in which information about cuts will dribble out is through the Route Utilisation Studies, originally produced by the Strategic Rail Authority but now the province of Network Rail. A good example here is the Stoke on Trent – Stafford local service which serves local but, as the SRA puts it, ‘lightly used’ stations. Indeed, according to the SRA’s statistics, about eight to ten people on average use each of the 18 trains to get off at one of the four intermediate stops – Wedgwood, Barlaston Stone and Norton Bridge.

Of course, in part this is a result of a reduced service. There is broadly about a train every two hours which is not enough to attract many people out of their cars. The journey takes 28 minutes, compared with 18 on the fast train and most of the trains in the middle of the day are virtually empty since the bulk of what passengers there are travel during the morning and evening peak. To make matters worse, because of a shortage of rolling stock the trains are currently being replaced by a bus service on which no fares are collected.

The SRA in the West Midlands Route Utilisation Study has argued that the service should be scrapped so that the rolling stock could be used to strengthen peak hour services in Birmingham, which, of course, also has the additional advantage of freeing up capacity for the London – Manchester services.

This is a very complex issue which has, at its heart, the question of what the railways are for – an issue that despite five years of the SRA and much other hand wringing has not been addressed by Labour or, indeed, its Tory predecessors.

I went to a meeting chaired by the ever enthusiastic Nicholas Owen to discuss the cuts in Barlaston village hall and found it interesting that not all the local people were up in arms at this prospective cut. The demand at the very well attended meeting was not so much for a railway as for a regular and reliable service. I suspect that most would be far more attracted to a good bus service than onto trains which, at best, will always run sporadically.

I made the rather fatuous suggestion that if they really wanted to save the railway, they should crowd onto the small local buses currently being provided for free by Central Trains, and show there is a real demand for services, but, in truth, it was difficult to the case for retaining the service. Indeed, paradoxically, the local trains either need proper investment to provide a reasonable service or else are probably not worth retaining – and that is the sort of question that is going to arise in many places in the next couple of years.

However, there is a wider issue. The meeting was organised by a formidable local woman, Sue Dawson, who managed to persuade Jim Steer, the SRA’s policy chief, to come up to Barlaston. She has turned herself into a one woman band to put Stoke on the map and indeed Stoke needs putting on the map. It is a very odd place, as there is an agglomeration of around 500,000 divided into six towns including Stoke whose centre is incredibly run down and doesn’t have the feel of a major conurbation at all. The lack of integration between the towns means that bus services are sporadic and cars are virtually the only ways of getting around the area which is right next to the M6 Motorway.

So there is an important regeneration point: should not these stations not be used as a regenerative tool to foster development rather than simply be abandoned leaving local residents facing the prospect of a railway line whose only purpose is giving them a nice view of Pendolino trains whizzing past. What is unfortunate about the current state of the debate on the railways is that there is not even anyone asking such questions, let along providing any answers.

A backward step for cyclists

According to a reader, thetrainline.com no longer allows cyclists to book cycle space on a train through the website. Instead, according to the help section on the web, ‘If you have already purchased a ticket, the bike space can only be reserved by taking the ticket into the station and asking a member of staff. They will reserve the bike space for you.’

This is the kind of small backward step that infuriates passengers. Apparently the facility was taking up too much space on the website and therefore delaying every transaction. Surely, in these days of gigas and googols, there must be a way around such blips.

Since, as regular readers will know, integrating bike and rail journeys is a personal obsession, I am delighted that there is, however, some good news on this front. The Association of Train Operating Companies has agreed to sponsor the National Cycle Rail Awards now that the SRA is about to go to the graveyard. If you feel anyone deserves an award for facilitating bike-rail journeys, soon be posted on the ATOC website, drop me an email and I will pass it on to the right people. I suspect thetrainline.com will not be getting an award, although there is plenty of time to change its policy as the closing date is not until the September 2!

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