05 February 2006

Soap Box Sunday!

"A soapbox is a raised, improvised platform on which one stands to make an impromptu speech, often about a political subject. Alternately, the word may be used to describe the box that soap comes in." Wikipedia

Back to the Branch line threat I mentioned a few days ago. I have now had a chance to read properly the document "Consultatation on the implementation of the Railways Act 2005 provisions on closures and minor modifications." (PDF)

As usual these documents are written in such a way to make them difficult to understand properly and I am sure I have missed many things in them.

The biggest area of concern for me is who can ask for a line to be closed and the reasons they can give.

Under the Act, a closure can be proposed by a rail funding authority or a train or
network operating company. The rail funding authorities specified in the Act are the
Secretary of State for Transport, Scottish Ministers, the National Assembly for Wales, the
English Passenger Transport Authorities and the Mayor of London. Where a train or
network operating company proposes a closure, a view on whether it should be brought
into effect must be taken by the rail funding authority.

And one of the most alarming reasons why a line can be closed...

In deciding whether or not to close a line, network or station, an authority or operator
will want to take into account a wide range of considerations. These will probably include:
• the other calls on funding, including investments unable to be undertaken or
services unable to be supported because funds are tied up supporting underused
assets and services.

In other words an operator can ask for a line closure if they think that they can make more money by running their trains on other lines. This on its own can probably be given as a good reason to close almost any branch line these days.

Of course the paper gives lots of good sounding paragraphs about all the other things that have to be taken into consideration but I do wonder just how safe these under-performing lines are.

Basically to close a line the operator has to undertake a full assessment to make its case for closure. Then the Rail Funding Authority has to make a decision based on the assessment on whether to proceed with the closure. This then requires ratification by the Office of Rail Regulation to see if the assessments have been carried out correctly. All this can be done over a period of time and although a public consultation has to take place there is no statutory requirement for a public hearing.

Just how much of a threat to our own branch lines down here is difficult to assess at the moment. I guess time will tell but I am not confident.

From April the branch lines down here will be taken over by First Group as part of the new franchise. Although First may be better at running trains than they are at running buses, to many people down here First Group will be better known for how they run the local bus service. You will find very few people down here who think that they have done a good job. For many passengers in Cornwall for example the only hope of getting a decent bus service is to wait for First Devon & Cornwall to withdraw and then hope that someone like Western Greyhound takes over.

There is an excellent series on Bus Deregulation which is now up to part 4 on the Omnibus blog. One of the biggest fears pre D-day was that 'cowboy' operators would move in on established bus routes and run elderly sub-standard buses on busy routes, undermining decent operations. In some areas this did indeed happen. If you look at some of the fleet which FDC is running in Cornwall especially at the moment and you would think nothing has changed. The thought that the same outfit will be running the local trains is one which makes people a little bit nervous!

It remains to be seen how First treat the remaining branch lines in Devon & Cornwall. It could in theory open up more travel possibilities with more combined bus and train journies being promoted to the benefit of all passengers - or it could just be seen as a way of getting the lines withdrawn, and passing more business onto the buses which they also run. Lets just hope its the former and not the latter.

If anyone who reads this blog has any thought on this - or any other topic raised then please let me know!

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