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Railwatch 081 - October 1999

Bring back the trains

By Robin J C Fennell and John Boynton

Delegates to the RDS reopenings conference at Walsall left in an upbeat mood but reinforced by the knowledge we still have a long way to go to get real action on many rail reopening schemes.

The main speaker was Michael Grant, the newly appointed Franchising Director who will be chief executive of the Strategic Rail Authority. He covered the changing role of the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising and its integration into the Strategic Rail Authority. Although he covered a lot of ground, many participants felt that he was somewhat restricted by being recently appointed.

During questions he made clear that he was unhappy with the slow introduction of new rolling stock and some train operators running the minimum number of trains allowed under the passenger service requirement. The SRA is willing to look at franchise extensions and reopenings but Mr Grant stressed that they must be supported by a business case.

Overall his approach was positive but it was clear that organisations such as RDS must continue their pressure, particularly on local and national politicians to ensure that progress is made.

But some questioners were unhappy about his replies. He was questioned about possible new criteria for franchisees, the franchisee's responsibilities for reopenings, for "token" services and whether there would be penalties for unreasonably downgrading existing services as has happened on Cornish branch lines.

The Reo 99 Conference was held on 26 June at the St Pauls Crossing Conference Centre in Walsall. The venue, arranged by the Midlands branch, was easy to find thanks to the welcome offer from Central Trains of posters advertising the conference. The attendance of around 100 heard RDS president Dr Michael Caton, welcome the speakers.

The afternoon session started with a lively and interesting talk by Stuart Davies from consultants Halcrow Transmark. He is a former railwayman who knew what he was talking about. He was also willing and able to answer questions about railway matters.

His subject was Feasibility and Cost Benefit Studies, always interesting, sometimes depressing - considering the incredible number of hoops any line up for reopening has to jump through - often encouraging. He concentrated on the South Wales lines which he has been personally concerned with but his opinions were relevant to anywhere in the country.

He stressed the importance of a feasibility study which covered all aspects of the proposed re-opening. If this is satisfactory then a business case must be made which shows that the financial, environmental and operational constraints can be met.

In answer to questions on the costing of a project he said that there were no general guidelines to give as each scheme had individual problems. As one might expect he said that the only way to cost a scheme was to employ a practitioner of the black art of consultancy. His outlook was positive but he emphasised the problems especially of the need for financial justification of any proposed reopening.

He used the example of the proposed reopening to passengers of the Ebbw Vale line, where the leader of the local council, on seeing the consultants' report, saw the last option - which read "Do nothing" - and said to his colleagues, "See that option? Forget it, it's not an option".

If only there were more people like him.

The final session led by Alan Bevan covered the current state of the reopening scene. He said progress was being made in several parts of the country but the present state of the railway industry with the train operators running the services and Railtrack responsible for the track did not help. The lack of overall policy guidance which the SRA is expected to give is clearly felt and will be a problem until that organisation is given legal authority.

Delegates came from as far afield as Dawlish, Glasgow, Poole, Swansea and Hull.

After the conference, organiser, Alan Bevan was last seen wandering through Walsall chewing Paracetamol tablets and muttering: "Never again".

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