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Topic 3, Community Rail, Updated December 2004

Essential reading for decision makers and transport correspondents

See also our chapter from page 170 in the Institute of Economic Affairs publication "the New Rural Economy"

The SRA's data

Depite the £300 million per year that the taxpayer contributes to Community Rail, astonishingly little useful data is available from the SRA's February 2004 consultation paper or the Development Strategy, published in November. The following summarises:

From the Consultation paper: Community Rail routes contain 1,300 route miles or 12.5% of the national network and include 420 stations (17% of the total).

From the Development Strategy

(A)

The network length is now 1,200 miles.

(B)

Annual infrastructure costs are £100,000 per track mile - including station renewal.

(C)

Rolling stock costs for leasing and heavy maintenance are £100,000 per year per vehicle representing 50-75% of total vehicle costs.

(D)

Government cash support for the rail industry ran to £2.6 billion in 2002/3.

(E)

Subsidy to Community rail costs approximately £300 million per annum.

•  There is no estimate of passenger or freight usage.

•  There is no schedule of the track lengths for the routes provided in the appendices.

•  The SRA has no idea of the proportion of the network, which has double track formation, i.e. the widths.

•  Likewise there is no comparative data for the adjacent road network.


Against that background the SRA quote the Institute of Chartered Accountants as finding three-quarters of its members believe local rail is important to the business economy of their region. How any person could come to any conclusion, let alone that one, in the absence of data remains a mystery.

Here is an analysis providing some of the blanks:

Flows

Although not included in the publications, the SRA will say that the 1,300 miles of the Community Rail Consultation network carries 23.6 million passenger-journeys per year.

The network contains 60 lines. Hence the average line length is 21.6 miles. The average journey length may be half that or 10 miles (compared with 25 miles for the entire network). On that basis the Community Rail network may carry 236 million passenger-miles annually.

Dividing by the network length and by the days in the year yields an average daily two-way flow of 500 people, or 250 in each direction.

If the 250 transferred to coaches, each carrying 20 people, 13 vehicles per day, or one half-full coach every hour, would suffice - illustrating the trivial use to which these invaluable rights of way are put. Many of them offer perhaps a 1 or 2-car "train" every couple of hours.

Taxpayer's subsidy

Community Rail's annual subsidy is £300 million. That corresponds to:

•  £5 million per year per line or to;

•  £230,000 per year per route-mile or to;

•  127 pence per passenger-mile.

Add the fares and we can see at a glance that the cost is substantially above that of an ordinary car, let alone travel by coach. Probably an on-demand minibus would do the job at a fraction of the cost of the trains.

(Separately from that we note that the Government's support for national rail is cited by the SRA as £2.6 billion for 2002/3. However, that excludes off-balance sheet loans. Currently these stand at £13 billion with another £20 billion promised over 5 years. Further, over the decade the rail industry aspires to spend £100 billion on capital projects. The fare box will cover none of that. Instead operating subsidy may amount to £2 billion annually. It follows that the range £(5-10) billion should replace the £2.6 billion cited by the SRA if the Government is to have a realistic estimate of the contribution required from the taxpayer to support the national rail network).

Likely effect on local economies

National rail carries 2% of motorised passenger-journeys or 5.5% of passenger-miles, concentrated in the South East. Hence in areas served by the Community Rail network it would be surprising if more than 0.5% of journeys or 1.5% of passenger-miles went by rail. With numbers as low as those, how can any person, let alone members of the Institute of Charted Accountants , conclude that the Community Rail network is important to the local economy? Probably its contribution is so small as to be impossible to measure and very much less than the £300 million per year (£230,000 per route-mile) contributed by the taxpayer.

Infrastructure costs

Infrastructure costs for Community Rail are cited as £100,000 per track-mile. In contrast we estimate that the maintenance costs on the motorway and trunk road network (including structural maintenance allocated to the capital account) are circa £40,000 per year per lane-mile - less than half that required for the scarcely used Community Rail network.

Rolling stock costs

The cost per carriage for Community Rail is set by the SRA at £100,000 per year for leasing and heavy maintenance, amounting to between 50% and 75% of vehicle costs. Hence full annual vehicle costs have the range £133,000 - £200,000. If there are 75 seats the cost per seat per year has the range £1,800 to £27,700. In comparison a brand new 50-seat motor coach may cost £150,000. If that were to be repaid over as little as 10 years at 6% and if maintenance costs amount to 7.5% of capital then the annual cost would be £30,000, providing a cost per seat of £600 per year - 3 to 4.5 times less than for the railway carriage.

Widths - potential as roads.

Many single-track railway lines were constructed on double track formations offering level widths of 28 feet wide - perfect for a high-speed motor road void of soft verges. Where the formation is single track the width is never less than 13 feet. Widening by 3 feet each side would provide a very good standard of road compared with most of the rural network. 

1

Alistair Darling has said the Government is not in the business of carting fresh air around the countryside. We comment it is not the fresh air that is the major problem. Instead it is the waste of the rights of way. They are often wide enough for 24 ft carriageways.

2

As railways these routes carry virtually nothing. If converted to roads the routes may extract thousands of commercial and other vehicles per day from unsuitable local road networks - providing long overdue bypasses at low cost to town and village alike.

3

The Government and local communities need to decide whether these invaluable rights of way should be (a) converted to motor roads so that they that may act as feeders to the main lines or (b) abandoned to rabbits and hedgehogs or (c) preserved as full sized, fully working, transport museums.

4

Most rail travellers are among the better off. There is no case for subsidising them. There is even less case for subsiding the rail industry directly. Instead, if the Government wishes to subside some deserving would-be travellers, it should pay the money directly to those people leaving them to decide how to spend the money.

Wp Ref. Website/Topic3 Community rail



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