Saturday, March 18, 2006

Rail Cuts – so what about the environmental crisis?

The Evening Advertiser recently carried a story (March 13th) about cuts in train service proposed for the new timetable. Whatever happened to all that talk about tackling the environmental crisis?
The Times described the proposed cuts in rural areas as the biggest since the Beeching era. In Wiltshire we have seen proposed cuts on the Melksham line, Great Bedwyn to London, and local services feeding into major stations. In Cornwall and Devon cuts in services are being made on lines where passenger numbers have increased by up to 40% over the last five years. A train from Truro to Penzance which currently carries 200 people is being cut, producing a 100 minute gap in the service.

When First Great Western took over the franchise in 1996 there were 14.5 million train journeys. This increased to 22 million by the end of 2005, reflecting the national upward trend with the 1 billion journey mark broken; the highest level since 1950.

The government and the train companies have blamed each other for the cuts. In fact they are the result of the attempt of the Department for Transport, no doubt under pressure from the Treasury, to cut £1 billion a year from rail expenditure. The DfT has set a timetable specification for the new service which provides fewer trains than the current one. Hence Alison Forster the Director of First Great Western, responding to complaints against proposed cuts, said:

"We can only operate additional services over and above those in the Department of Transport's specification if services are commercially viable and there is capacity on the rail network."

This is the context in which we should view the government’s ‘Closures and minor modifications consultation’, much of which deals with the process to push through rail line closures. Overleaf we reproduce a statement by the RMT explaining the government’s consultation.

The decision in relation to closure currently rests with the Secretary of State for Transport. However, it is being handed over to the unelected Office of the Rail Regulator.

The consultation paper says that “as in any industry, changes to service provision will be necessary to reflect passenger and freight demand”. So why cut trains which are full? But the railway, of course, is not just a business like any other. It provides a public service. When New Labour was elected in 1997, John Prescott said that if the government had not succeeded within five years to begin to see a significant shift from road to rail, they would have failed. They have failed, miserably. Moreover, the cuts that are being proposed now are in areas where increasing numbers of people travel by train. Cuts in service, not to mention line closures, can only lead to increased traffic on the roads. What sense does this make given the environmental crisis?

The collapse of Network Rail as a private company quoted on the stock exchange marked the failure of the Tory government’s privatisation. However, because of its free market fundamentalism, the Blair government refused to renationalise Network Rail and the railways, even though they could have simply taken much of it back for nothing as the Rail Companies’ franchises ran out. Gordon Brown insists Network Rail remain a private sector company so that its debt is not counted on the government’s balance sheet. Yet the company depends on government money, and should it collapse then the public purse will take the hit anyway; unless, of course, the government goes down the road of Beeching Mark 2.

Already they have abandoned any attempt to cut road transport. To introduce a new round of cuts on the railways would be a lunacy which would increase cars and emissions, literally fuelling global warming, rather than tackling it.

Swindon TUC is calling on local trade unionists, transport users and anybody concerned with the environmental crisis to do the following:

• Send in a response to the Department for Transport consultation opposing closures and demanding that trades unions and rail users groups have by law to be consulted; opposing the unaccountable ORR determining closures.

Or write to:
Closures and minor modifications consultation manager
Zone 5/27 Great Minster House
76 Marsham Street
London SW1P 4DR

• Contact your MP calling for a halt to any cuts and opposing the new closure process.

Or write to them at:
House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA

Department for Transport rail consultation

RMT is working with sister rail unions and other rail campaigners for the protection and expansion of rail services to be at the heart of new procedures. The deadline for responses to a Department for Transport consultation is April 21st April and any organisation or individual can respond, including local campaigners and rail users groups.

The DfT consultation document deals with closure procedures and minor modifications guidance. The document is a direct result of the Railways Act 2005 which promised that the government would consult on new closures guidance before they were introduced into law. RMT members will remember that when the 2005 Act was going through Parliament we raised the criticism that at a time when rail was carrying more passengers than at any time since the 1950s it was bizarre that so much of the Act addressed the closure of lines, services and stations.

Since the Act was passed there have been disturbing press reports that branch lines should be concreted over and that many lightly used stations could be closed.

In 2007 the DfT will produce their High Level Output Specification and also announce how much money they have available in the railway pot. There are indications that the Treasury is seeking to cut £1 billion a year from the railway budget. It is in this context that the closures guidance should be seen.

On the face of it the guidance looks acceptable. Once a closure is proposed, a cost-benefit analysis with monetary values placed on a series of factors including the impact that closure will have on the environment, accessibility, safety and the economy. However, two things are important to bear in mind. Firstly the cost-benefit analysis is already used and all too often is utilised as a barrier to investment on the rail network. Secondly, and probably more importantly, consultants employed to conduct the analysis are likely to come up with the results required by the DfT. Put simply, if the DfT wants figures that support a closure then the consultant will provide them.

Regrettably the guidance once again raises the spectre of bustitution and makes clear that in addition to the money which could be saved by closure the potential value of the land which could be sold as a result of closure should be taken into account by the cost-benefit analysis. Commenting on the procedures, with specific regard to bustitution, the highly respected Rail Business Intelligence journal recently said: “the fundamental problem is the underlying assumption that buses, which obviously incur negligible infrastructure costs, are in principle as good as the rail services they replace. The danger is that bustitution will inevitably emerge as the cheapest option for a substantial proportion of the network as the noose tightens.”

The new guidance scraps the current system where the regional Rail Passengers Committee produces a report on the hardship likely to be caused by the proposed cut. Under the rules to be scrapped the final decision over closure rested with the democratically elected Secretary of State for Transport.

For the future the new procedure will allow Network Rail, Train Operating Companies, or a rail funding authority (DfT, Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, PTAs or the Mayor of London) to propose a closure. The decision to go ahead will be made by the unelected Office of the Rail Regulator.

The consultation itself requires that notices are placed in both local and national newspapers and in the stations affected by the proposed closures. Organisations have 12 weeks after the second newspaper notice appears to respond.

Trades Unions and local rail users groups are not in the list of bodies and organisations that have, by law, to be consulted. Significantly there is no obligation that the consultation holds public meetings or hearings to discuss the closure proposals. This is a serious omission. It is vital that local communities and trades unions are able to meet publicly and collectively in order to hold to account those who are proposing the removal of local rail services.

The full closure procedure can be found at the Department for Transport website:

Download a rich text file version of this Bulletin for distribution at:


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