11 April 2012

Possible Line Closures?

The final paragraph of Industry Insider's regular column in RAIL magazine recently was stark:
I have the uneasy feeling that cost savings of the magnitude suggested will not be delivered. In that event, the small print in the Command Paper is ominous - there would be a need for greater Government prescription with more radical steps to ensure value for money in the train operation market. For that, read closure of rural routes.

Perhaps overly sensational, afforded by his complete anonymity, this is not the first time I've heard those involved with the day-to-day running of the railways show signs of concern about the closure of the less-used routes. There are many that could be considered for the chop and with the latest station usage figures released only recently, it is all too easy to see how some stations see passenger numbers barely make it into double figures. When they're part of a busier line, all well and good; when they're not... who knows!

The Command Paper claims the rail industry can reduce costs of £3.5 billion by the end of 2019, with the bulk of this coming from Network Rail. There are a number of very welcome initiatives the infraco is engaging in to see improved value for money - the headline scheme is the vertical integration of maintenance and operations in the South West. There was talk of East Anglia being a test bed for something similar, though this has gone quiet.

The manner in which rail receives its funding is being reduced, in line with the Labour government's original plan, to a 25/75 split tax payer/rail user and this is necessitating the RPI+3% fares increases. But it doesn't force Network Rail to clean up its act. Nor does this contribute to the overall savings the industry needs to make by 2019. Passenger growth is expected to rise by around 20% by 2019 and while this assists with rail funding, cuts in front-line staff to save costs could be argued as being perverse when thousands more are travelling every week. TOCs are to be expected to innovate to attract even more passengers and thus require even less public subsidy.

In his interview with NR's top man, David Higgins - one year into his post, Nigel Harris wrote in his gritty style the continuing problems faced. Higgins told him that every year rail demand increases by 5% and that as a comparison Gatwick Airport's is 0.8% (last year) and this is seen as a challenge. With growth at both the current and projected levels, could closing lines really be a possibility?

When privatisation took place, a number of meetings up and down the country were held by local action groups, keen to safeguard their rural branch lines. Friends of the Barton Line in North Lincolnshire was one organisation. They were told, in unison with the local authority, that these new privatised train operating companies would be keen to show they are willing and able to run little-used services along rural branches. I've read minutes of meetings where similar discussions were had in Cornwall and the same message was being put across.

It's was a little disingenuous as it would be the Department for Transport who would decide whether there would be line closures and they appear to be using the McNulty Report, on which the Command Paper was based, to force the issue.

The question I'd ask is would Northern Rail, for example, really care if the Barton Line was to close? They currently pay TransPennine Express to crew the route as it's not in their patch. They receive a reasonable subsidy for providing the service, but if it went, would it really affect them. Really?

Residents in Goxhill and New Holland would be the ones who would be directly affected. With the local bus services being a shadow of their former selves, the removal of the train would mean geographical isolation. These are the people who would perhaps benefit from being made aware of potential line closures from 2019, should the savings not be made to the tune prescribed. And with railwaymen such as Industry Insider believing this to be a reality, it really brings it home.

Perhaps the only benefit of the effective 2019 deadline is its timing: it would be the year before the next likely general election, for whichever party comes to power in 2015. It's a little too close to a general election for a ruling party to think it could get away with closing a number of rural lines and not suffering at the ballot box.

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