Community Rail Development Strategy
The Strategic Rail Authority's Community Rail Development Strategy was published in November 2004. The Friends submitted evidence to the consultation document back in May 2004. Our principal concern was that the new thinking was being hampered by an over-insistence on bringing costs down and a reluctance to sanction new trains for rural lines. Sadly, our misgivings have not been appeased by the final document.
The Foreword from the new Chairman, David Quarmby does not augur well. He writes "Too many empty seats are running up and down Britain's branch lines safely and reliably, but expensively. Even if they were filled, the lines would still require unaffordable levels of subsidy, so this strategy charts a way both to grow income and to reduce costs so that the subsidy levels could be reduced by a third, and the subsidy per passenger could be halved. It means embracing change - in the way the railway is run (and particularly in the way it is maintained), in the prices paid and when money is tight, in making difficult choices - some of which may be uncomfortable."
The sentiments are laudable, but the methods sound quite menacing. This is carried through in the main text. "The current [rolling stock] position is that leasing/heavy maintenance costs are high, around £100,000 per annum for a single vehicle, making train strengthening for growth or seasonal variations unaffordable". Thus, even if you fill all the seats on a train it is unaffordable and so is strengthening to accommodate even more passengers, and you can forget the tourist season despite all the extra revenue that brings to the local economy!
The strategy does not apply directly to Scotland, partly because most of the likely community railways in Scotland (such as the FNL) are already designated as Trans European Network (TEN) routes. Sadly too all references in the consultative document to the good work done by the Highland Rail Partnership have been airbrushed out, presumably by Whitehall edict! The strategy will affect Scotland in ways such as the ability to procure a big enough order for new trains to make a new production line viable. We desperately want to see a new "fit for purpose" train designed for lines such as the FNL to replace the 158s and orders from England and Wales could be crucial to achieving this.
The six pilot routes are branches in Cornwall and Devon, the Whitby, Penistone and Skegness lines and the line from Watford Junction to St Albans. We wish their Partnerships well in their endeavours to attract greater community involvement and usage. Underneath the good ideas in the report is the far more pressing need for the Government to sort out the iniquitous leasing charges for rolling stock and to admit that you sometimes have to invest money in improvements to make longer term savings. Otherwise the SRA Chairman's ambitious targets on subsidy reduction are unlikely to be achievable.
Even more worrying is RAIL Magazine's comment on all of this (5 January p28). They suggest the Department for Transport's agenda is to save pennies by closing community railways rather than reducing the much bigger losses made by Virgin and the former Southern Region lines. To this end, the Railways Bill is attempting to simplify the closure procedures by allowing bus substitutions without a public hearing. Last time some of the bus services lasted a mere few years and then left large tracts of the country without any public transport. Only in Scotland, RAIL says, does this lesson appear to have been learned. The bill applies to Scotland too, so we all need to be vigilant.