Rural rail services to be cut despite growing popularity
The Times: March 09, 2006
By Ben Webster
Passenger numbers on ill-fated branch lines have increased by 40 per cent in four years.
BRANCH lines across the West Country are to lose up to half their daily trains, despite rapid growth in passenger numbers over the past four years.
The Government, which wants to reduce the rail network?s £5 billion annual subsidy by at least £1 billion, has authorised the biggest cuts to rural services since the Beeching report of 1963 after claiming that the lines are so poorly used that they are ?in the last-chance saloon?.
But official figures obtained by The Times show that passenger numbers on the lines have increased by up to 40 per cent in the past four years, more than double the average rate of growth across the network. The figures are from Wessex Trains, the present operator, which has increased frequency at minimal extra cost since taking over in 2001. First Group, which takes over next month, has announced that services will be cut on every branch line in Devon and Cornwall.
Last week The Times disclosed that First was merely complying with the service levels set by the Department for Transport. Alistair Darling, the Transport Secretary, tried to blame First for making the cuts, but has now admitted that he approved service levels well below the present frequency.
On the Newquay branch in Cornwall, which will have only four trains a day from December instead of seven, passenger numbers have grown by 40 per cent since 2001. The St Ives branch will lose ten of its twenty-six daily services, despite attracting 25 per cent more passengers. The Looe Valley line, which recorded growth of 16 per cent, will have its services cut from thirteen to eight.
In Devon, the Tarka line from Exeter to Barnstaple will lose one service a day and most trains will no longer stop at several small stations. Wessex had upgraded them and installed new shelters, resulting in a 26 per cent increase in passengers.
Stuart Walker, Devon and Cornwall secretary of the Railfuture campaign group, said: ?It is absurd to be cutting services on lines which are proving increasingly popular. Ministers keep saying they want more people to use public transport, but as soon as they do services are being cut.? He said that it was deceitful of the Government to claim that the cuts were a commercial decision. ?These cuts are the result of a reduction in public support for the railways. The Government could have stipulated that the existing frequency must be maintained, but it failed to do so. It?s not just the branch lines but the main line too, where local commuter trains which have standing room only are being withdrawn.?
The 17.16 from Truro to Penzance, which carries 200 commuters, is being withdrawn, leaving a 100-minute gap in the timetable. Mr Walker said he feared that many commuters would switch back to cars.
Tim Davies, head of transport co-ordination at Devon County Council, said that the Government had failed to inform rail users about its plans to withdraw support for rural services. ?It?s been done behind closed doors because the DfT wanted to get the highest possible premium payments from First,? he said.
First has agreed to pay the DfT £1 billion over the next ten years for the right to operate the Greater Western franchise.
Railfuture had hoped that First would use its profits on the lucrative London-Bristol main line to prop up rural services in Devon and Cornwall. However, the DfT is instead allowing First to cut services on the branch lines to fund the premium payments.
Chris Grayling, the Shadow Transport Secretary, said: ?Alistair Darling seems to be turning into a cross between the Fat Controller and Dr Beeching. He?s dictating to the rail companies which services they should or should not run ? and he also seems to be set on running down and then closing many of our rural railways.?