Rail 528: Save the sleeper campaign

The battle to save the ‘Night Riviera’ has implications way beyond the West Country. After chairing the launch of the campaign group, CHRISTIAN WOLMAR warns that the issue is a testbed for the DfT’s ability to force through unjustified cuts.

One of the rather late legacies of the Strategic Rail Authority was the suggestion that the West Country ‘sleeper’ was not value for money and therefore should be scrapped. The idea emerged in the consultation document for the Great Western franchise, but no further explanation was offered. There was only the bold statement that “the SRA considers the ‘Night Riviera’ service poor value for money and will request priced options for its withdrawal from bidders.” Well, does it represent poor value? The first requirement of such an assessment would obviously be to know how much the service costs each year. Getting this information out of the SRA and now the Department for Transport is rather like trying to get a quote from Mike Mitchell (he’s the director general railways, in case you forgot). When Cornish MP Andrew George tried to get answers to a few basic questions on the cost, profitability and whether it was subsidised, he entered a quagmire thicker than the sands of the local beaches.

The answer on the cost, from a Roger Jones, franchise divisional manager, was straight out of Yes, Minister. TOCs do not provide disaggregated financial data and you can’t ask them for more details at the moment because they are in the middle of the bidding process. Nevertheless, Jones managed to tell the MP that the costs were around £5 million and that revenue was certainly less than half that. But no basis for these fi gures was provided. He added later the extraordinary statement that the overall economic impact of the withdrawal, even taking into account damage to local busi- nesses, was ‘positive’ but again no details were forthcoming.

The tone of the letter appears to suggest that the department’s mind is made up and the civil servants are simply looking at evidence to back up their case. While it was accepted that 38,000 use the service annually, Jones argued that most would either travel at different times on the train or drive when there was not much congestion. A conservative calculation on the return saver of £62 and an average of £25 per sleeping berth suggests this number of users brings in at least £2.75m, a bit more than half the ‘plucked out of the air’ cost of £5m suggested by the department.

It would seem extraordinary that the overall economic value of such a vital link to a deprived and distant part of the UK is not worth £2m or so in subsidy. The West Country is ill-served by the road network and, while Ryanair fl ies to Newquay, the number of flights has just been reduced. The ‘sleeper’ offers an important link with the capital for business people and tourists for the cost of building a few metres of a new road. Indeed, the Cornish Guardian’s headline on the day I was there was that £55m had to be spent on a bypass.

I had been invited to chair the meeting at the Eden Centre to launch the campaign and a lively event it proved. Much spadework had already been done by the two initial founders of the campaign, Andrew Roden, formerly of this parish, and Stuart Walker of Railfuture. The strong turnout at the meeting, which included a local MP, suggested there was a lot of anger about the issue.

Local businesses are worried about loss of revenue, and the fact that the internationally renowned Eden project was prepared to host the meeting again demonstrated the feeling that scrapping the service would have a direct impact on tourist income.

A lot of very good points were made. One user said it was diffi cult to book and you couldn’t buy a ticket through the internet. Indeed, while the train may be run by a private company, FirstGroup, it has the feel of an old railway service, tucked away and forgotten. For example, in the small print it says you can get a free shower in Paddington (instead of paying £3.75) but when one punter tried to do that, he was met with blank looks all round. Thus, rather than scrapping, how about repricing, providing a better service and advertising it? Back to the hapless Jones. He said only that ‘innovation’ would be best coming from the bidders. The DfT would, in other words, sit on its hands. Yet the bidders have much bigger fish to fry, like getting the numbers right, and are hardly likely to pay much attention to what the SRA has already suggested is a marginal service.

There are some possible imaginative solutions. FM Rail, which runs charter trains, has said it would consider taking on the service on an open access basis. Of course, that would require extremely complex negotiations over the access charges it would pay which, if set too high, would be prohibitive, and leasing costs of the trains.

There is a much wider aspect to this campaign. When in the very early days of privatisation, Roger Salmon, the fi rst franchising director, suggested axing the ‘sleeper’ service to Fort William, a huge campaign sprang up, helped by the fact that The Daily Telegraph’s transport correspondent started calling it the ‘Deerstalker Express’. The campaigners were lucky in that they discovered the service was the only one to use a small section of track near Glasgow and managed to appeal successfully against its closure.

While it would have been possible for OPRAF (the SRA’s predecessor) to have won eventually in the courts, the momentum built up against the closure ensured the decision was reversed. Moreover, Salmon retreated with a bloody nose and the Tory government realised that making nitpicking cuts to marginal services just wasn’t worth it.

That is an important lesson, as the Carlisle-Settle experience also shows: these campaigns can make a big difference and must be waged with all available weapons because now, a decade on, we are here again. There’s the prospect of far more wide-ranging cuts given the parlous fi nances of the railway. We know the High Level Output Specifi cation process could lead to many suggestions of major reductions in services. The importance of the ‘sleeper’ campaign, therefore, extends far beyond the West Country. It is the testing ground for the ability of the department to push through cuts based on the sort of fl imsy and dishonest evidence that resulted in so many misguided cuts at the time of Beeching. The very neglect of this service raises suspicions, since that was always the tactic in the 1960s: neglect, cut, and withdraw.

The meeting fi nally settled on a name, SNUG, although nobody could quite work out what that stood for – probably Sleepers Nightriviera Users’ Group. Let’s hope it meets with the same success as the ‘Deerstalker Express,’ which, in all honesty, is of far less economic importance to its region than the ‘Night Riviera’. See www. saveoursleeper.com for more information.

Baggage madness I do despair, sometimes, of the Association of Train Operating Companies. Much as it has some very good people working for it, the organisation never quite dares to say boo to a goose.

When Alistair Darling came up with his ludicrous suggestion to look at the technology that screens baggage, with the idea of using it for rail passengers (RAIL 526), ATOC stayed mum. When I went on the radio and TV to criticise the plans, however, I received several calls and e-mails from TOC managers thanking me for opposing the idea.

Well, why don’t they go public and say, “Look, this is a bad idea and mere political showboating?” It always seems they are scared of angering Darling and yet, as representatives of the rail industry, it is ATOC’s job to do that occasionally. Fear seems to pervade both sides of the public-private divided. When I talk to train operators, they seem to be somewhat in awe of the DfT and overly concerned about what it might think. Yet when I talk to civil servants, I have a mirror-image of the same conversation: they are reluctant to do anything that might annoy the companies.

Both sides should show more bottle.

The companies should be open about what they want, but ultimately they are forced to accept the framework set for them by the department. That is the way of government: it sets the rules and the players have to fall into line.

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