Community Rail Development
The Strategic Rail Authority has published a consultation paper on a strategy for "community railways" and seeks comments by 28 May. The objectives of the strategy are:
- to increase passenger volume and income
- to manage down the unit costs of running the lines now and in the future
- to involve the local community more closely in the development of its railway
We are told that "the gap between costs and income on rural routes and branch lines reflects the high fixed costs of providing a rail service with its own infrastructure and terminals. Rolling stock costs are high in comparison with the cost of buses and average rail fares are low."
Scottish routes are not specifically covered in the paper partly because "the Highland Rail Partnership has been particularly successful in raising the profile of Highland lines and in developing new freight business". The paper draws on these ideas and the Partnership's "drive and initiative graphically illustrates best practice in this area". Take a bow, Frank Roach.
Other factors determining exclusion are the role of the Scottish Executive and the fact that most of our lines are Trans European Network (TEN) routes and thus could not be designated as community routes as well. Several lines are proposed to act as test beds for ideas such as microfranchising and the benefits of local management. These include the Whitby, Looe and St Ives branches and the Isle of Wight railway from Ryde to Shanklin.
What is really disappointing is that the paper has been hugely influenced by the SRA's current predicament of lack of funds and a Government review. It is quite obvious that the main driver is to manage costs down. "Even where extensions of the network represent value for money in economic terms, they inevitably require additional subsidy which is currently unavailable" (my italics).
Chris Austin is the SRA's Executive Director for Community Railways and both he and Frank Roach spoke at a recent conference in Edinburgh entitled "Innovation on Rural and Regional Railways" organised by the Waverley Route Trust. Chris's thesis on new rolling stock is that "the cost of new trains is always higher than refurbishing the existing fleet, and on community railways which have a low yield from relatively low fares, this makes the prospect of new trains for growth unaffordable".
Again this obsession with cutting costs is grossly devaluing what is otherwise a paper of good ideas. Costs have already been cut to the bone, such that rural routes are severely handicapped by reversals (e.g. Georgemas), antiquated signalling (e.g. route plungers) and poorly designed rolling stock (e.g. Pacers). Local passengers and tourists have to be attracted to use rural routes and a comfortable train with plenty of luggage and bike space is a prerequisite. To achieve critical mass to open a production line, Scottish, English and Welsh routes should all be considered for new trains. Money is tight, but we should at least be thinking about a new build rather than ruling it out altogether! FOTFNL will be making these points to the SRA.