Published: 29th October 2015
The future of the 8 ½ mile long Ryde to Shanklin Island Line has been hotly debated on the Isle of Wight over recent months, particularly so since Rail Minister Claire Perry announced in a press release on 11th September, that alternative models (possibly outside of a wider franchise) would be looked at, to enable the line to remain operating, while also handing responsibility for infrastructure to Network Rail.
This statement was not a surprise to many local rail users as on 26th March this year, local MP Andrew Turner wrote a three-sentence letter to the Minister, urgently seeking “confirmation of the Government’s commitment to help establish the taskforce to transfer the Island Line to an Island-owned community enterprise partnership.”
A local cross-party group of rail users, who have formed the pressure group ‘Keep Island Line in Franchise’ (KILF), held a public meeting in Shanklin Theatre on 11th August. The local MP was invited to speak at the meeting but declined, much to the annoyance of the 250 or so individuals that attended the event. The meeting unanimously voted to lobby to ensure Island Line was retained within a wider franchise, as it has been since privatisation.
Following the KILF public meeting, on 21st August, former IOW Council Leader David Pugh went head to head with Nick Finney, the MP’s transport advisor on local radio. Mr Finney said that on this occasion “he was speaking as a transport expert and not necessarily on behalf of Andrew [the local MP] although I am his transport advisor.”
During the interview, he claimed that “the existence of the Island Line under its existing regime has not served the Island well”. Despite being asked for clarification of this statement, nothing has been received, and given that the Moving Annual Average statistics show punctuality running at 99.3% and reliability at 99.7%, far higher than any other franchised operation, it is unclear as to the intention of this statement.
However, Mr Finney went on to question how the line should be operated in the future asking “Should it be a light rail system, should be a tramway system? And unfortunately there’s been some mischief played with the argument that it should be taken over by a community rail partnership.” This statement is completely at odds with the MP’s letter dated 26th March and as the MP’s transport advisor, it is curious that he made this statement.
In the radio interview, Mr Finney also suggested that the Parry People Mover (PPM) concept could be appropriate for Island Line, describing the gas/flywheel operated 20-seat railcars that currently operate the 800 metres of track between Stourbridge Junction and Stourbridge Town. Although Mr Finney stated that ridership had increased since the PPM concept was introduced, official statistics from the ORR suggest otherwise, saying that the line was used by 557,552 passengers in 2008/9 and 483,484 2013/4, a significant reduction of 13% against the national trend of annual ridership increase.
But John Parry who invented the PPM has confirmed that ridership is higher, according to manual logs kept on each trip, rather than official statistics for varying reasons including shorter booking office opening hours.
The small single carriage train also has room for 40 standing passengers which is obviously fine for a two minute journey but not for a trip of nearly 25 minutes for passengers, many elderly carrying luggage, the Stourbridge Branch is not renowned for its holiday traffic! It should be pointed out however, that the company behind the PPM operation has previously revealed plans for larger railcars seating a higher number of people.
In February 2015, a Freedom of Information (FOI) request was made to the Department for Transport (DfT) asking about Island Line matters but no reply was forthcoming until after the General Election. A second FOI was made in August bringing more revelations.
The information released revealed that a meeting was held on 11th February this year between the Claire Perry the Rail Minister and the IOW MP along with his advisor Nick Finney and local councillors. A relaxation of public railway regulation (including safety standards), and transferring the line to a Social Enterprise Company was discussed noting that the normal level of regulation for community rail may be too burdensome for the taskforce to overcome. It was noted (incorrectly) that the Island already had a privately owned station (at Havenstreet) and a community run steam railway so there were existing models in place. The Isle of Wight Steam Railway is a Charity and not a community run operation.
The existing arrangement for Island Line is that the infrastructure was leased by Railtrack in 1994 to the franchisee who in turn is responsible for maintenance. This lease expires in 2019 but the South Western franchise, currently held by Stagecoach, expires two years earlier following the collapse of the Wessex Alliance earlier this year.
Following the FOI requests, it emerged that the threat to the future of the service first emerged in May 2014 at a meeting between Stagecoach Southwest Trains (SST) and Andrew Turner MP when, according to the latter, the train operator said that a sustainable long-term strategy was needed before any further investment could be contemplated.
According to the MP, SWT pointed out that it would be easier to close Island Line and replace it with bus services, but they recognised that the Council wanted to keep it running. Why the MP did not at the time tell his constituents about this threat has not been explained.
Following the May 2014 meeting, Renaissance Trains compiled a ‘pro bono’ report entitled ‘IOW Railway Social Enterprise Partnership Business Case’ which was written for the MP’s office. The very first sentence talks of “a transformation of the Island Line Railway from one of low ambition and poor quality operating largely in isolation”…..
The following paragraph states…… “the creation of a Social Enterprise Partnership can unlock greater potential for inward heritage tourism”…..
The report claims in one paragraph that buses compete with trains, while in another section, says that buses take 37 minutes against a 22 minute journey time by rail! The report also suggests that a review of what can be done to improve workforce productivity should be carried out. Given that Island Line is vertically integrated and staff undertake different roles, it is not at all clear what improvements could be made.
The report goes onto argues against itself saying that the operational fleet seems to be relatively reliable but that more fleet reliability data is required. It estimates that £10million needs to be spent on Ryde tunnel to return it to a normal gauge, the trackbed having been raised 10 inches in 1967 to reduce flooding of the then newly electrified railway. A review of signalling strategy is also called for to improve capacity and to improve operational efficiencies.
As a result of Network Rail saying that the signalling was life-expired, it was proposed in 2007 that the passing loop at Sandown should be moved to Brading while the Olympics were underway in July 2012. This would enable a regular 30-minute interval service to be operated using a single line for the whole route. This would have allowed the Smallbrook Junction to Ryde St Johns section to be operated as a separate line running parallel to, but not connected to Island Line, by the Isle of Wight Steam Railway (IOWSR).
They would use two of the three through running lines at Ryde St Johns which provides a run-round fully signalled loop. The Renaissance report says that a loop should be installed there but as it already exists this is perhaps, a curious statement to make!
Amazingly to Islanders, the report suggests that the IOWSR volunteers could be enlisted to run Island Line to cheapen operating costs. It was also suggested that steam services should operate to Shanklin made easier by installing a triangle at Smallbrook and that the reconstruction of a Ryde Pier Tram at Havenstreet could be used along the second track on Ryde Pier.
Aside from the logistical problems of having enough manpower to undertake such a task, it needs to be questioned as to why volunteers would want to operate a service 17 hours a day, 364 days a year. The report does not investigate this area or compare the IOWSR services which operate on around 195 days a year for an eight hour period, giving a significant difference in operations.
Island Line carries over 1.4 million passengers a year while the IOWSR, in the top division of preserved railways, carries under 10% of that figure and is run by a professional team of around 25 people plus 350 volunteers.
This is not the only unusual proposal in the report however, as it is also suggested that solar panels could be installed alongside the line between Ryde and Shanklin!
IOWSR General Manager Peter Vail said that over recent months the Railway has been working hard to convey the message that it is keen to seek the opportunity to extend the line to Ryde St Johns, operating alongside Island Line, but he adds that when a community partnership opportunity was raised by the local MP, “we firmly stated we will not be in a position to consider running Island Line.”
Mr Vail added that the view of the IOWSR is that the only solution to give Island Line a future is to stay in the franchise, however, if for whatever reason Island Line ceased, then the heritage railway would seek to extend its line to Ryde Esplanade, while suggesting that the track bed to Shanklin is protected for a future opportunities.
Mr Turner and his advisors continue to advocate Island Line being operated by a Social enterprise Company (SeC) and are seemingly ignoring or unaware of what happened to Ealing Community Transport (ECT), a SeC. They purchased the Dartmoor and Weardale Railways from PWC administrators in 2006 but the operations didn’t last long. Under a year after the experiment started, staff were laid off and the community-run local railway branchline experiment ended. It must be remembered that ECT also owned and operated a successful locomotive renovation works in Wakefield suppling industrial railways at that time.
The organisation said, in a press statement on 28th February 2007, that: “ECT Group has recently reviewed the performance of its rail business and as a result decided to significantly reduce the capacity of the workshop and withdraw from main line operations, to maintain the viability of our rail division.”
Redundancies were announced and train operations ceased, this therefore raises the question about who would the operator of ‘last resort’ be if a non-profit company ran any full-time commercial railway. There is a precedent for such a query, when National Express handed the East Coast Main Line franchise back to the Government part way through the franchise as a result of financial pressures, it was the ‘last resort’ operator, in this case Directly Operated Railways who stepped in to continue operations until such time as the franchise could be relet.
The political aspirations for Island line do not stop with the task of operating the line however, on 16th September, Mr Turner MP said in a statement that: “We will need access to capital infrastructure funds, either public or private if we are to be able to modernise Island Line and work towards a more efficient operating model. There is now a clear challenge to find a way in which to engage professionally with all those currently- and likely in the future to be responsible for the South West franchise.”
“We mustn’t ignore possibilities for inward investment and close our minds to opportunities. For example if new rolling stock is needed for a light railway system why shouldn’t it be built here on the Island, bringing much needed investment and employment for Islanders?”
This is despite there being no current or likely manufacturer of rolling stock on the Island, and realistically, it is inconceivable that a business case could be put forward for the investment and expenditure required to create the facilities to allow the one-off construction of new stock for the Island.
As part of the research and investigation for this article, the Office of Road and Rail (ORR), the DfT, and Rail Safety Systems Board (RSSB) were all contacted for a view on how they thought Island Line could be operated on a voluntary staff basis, and how legal railway regulation issues could be managed.
The Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin MP was asked in early September about Island Line revealed that he was seemingly not aware of any proposals for the Island Line, with any discussion quickly curtailed by his officials. This prompted some to question whether senior ministers have been kept in the dark about early proposals that could bring about a significant change in rail franchising and the splitting off of a route from the franchise system.
Despite several requests to the Department, the DFT has refused to provide any meaningful comment, simply stating that it routinely works with stakeholders as we develop franchises, and adding that all responses to the forthcoming consultation on the South Western franchise will be taken into account before finalising the plans.
Details provided by minutes of the meeting in February 2015 between Claire Perry MP, local councillors, Andrew Turner MP and the DfT, show that discussion of the regulatory matters was undertaken, with an unidentified DfT official saying that the subject of splitting Island Line from a franchise model had been discussed with DfT lawyers and “they did not see a problem” given its isolated nature, adding that the Department would be “happy to reassess the regulations, but thought that most of them were safety-related and could be adapted appropriately to suite the proposed operating/ownership model.”
Given that safety regulation on Britain’s railways is handled by the Office of Rail and Road, it was therefore somewhat surprising to be told by the ORR: “We haven't been involved in any discussions so far about possible models for the island line.”
Andrew Turner writes a monthly column in the IOW Beacon, a free local magazine, and in the August edition he signed off by stating: “Of course we will need the Government’s support both to help provide the expertise and to support us with grants; but rather than those grants going to South West Trains, we may even be able to get them paid directly to the community here on the Island. The Government stands ready to discuss this opportunity with the IOW Council.”
Yet the South West Trains franchise is one of the few franchises which does not receive a subsidy and has been profitable since Network South East days. So it is incorrect to refer to grants going to South West Trains. It receives no public funding, even for the operation of Island Line.
Speaking in response to the DfT statement on 11th September statement, KILF Steering Group member David Pugh said: “We welcome the Government’s proposal that Network Rail should take on the full cost of maintaining the line’s infrastructure, including the track, pier and stations. This would be a hugely positive step forward, putting Island Line on an equitable footing with the rest of the rail network, and in doing so resolving the unique anomaly of this burden sitting with the franchisee. "
He added: “However while the DfT see this as a stepping stone to exploring alternative operational models, we consider that such a regularisation of maintenance arrangements strengthens the case for Island Line remaining as a full, integral part of a regional franchise. Such a change would mean that Island Line can be treated the same as other small rural routes in the franchise area, benefitting from the support of a wider operation.”
The DfT has said that public consultation on the South Western franchise, including Island Line will commence later this year. The proposals made by the IOW MP could lead to the UK’s most reliable branch line leaving the franchise system in April 2017 (or sometime soon afterwards) without the protection and economics of scale that this affords, and instead to be run locally. If this happens, it is logical to speculate which lines may follow such a model and potentially be put at risk of closure if losses prove too much to stem once cast away from ‘the system’ of a wider franchise.
While the debate locally continued, Christopher Garnett, who was previously in charge of East Coast operator GNER until its financial troubles, was appointed on October 14 by the Isle of Wight Council to undertake a review of options for Island Line and inform their work. The Department for Transport (DfT) said on October 19th “that they had nothing to do with the appointment but were aware of Mr Garnett’s role and were also aware of Mr Finney.”
The DfT were asked again to put this statement in writing on October 27 at 447pm with the following question submitted:
So that means the DfT is not denying the conversation we had last Monday mid morning when you said "that the DfT had no part in Chris Garnett's appointment then?" And Nick Finney also attended the meeting on February 11th with Claire Perry so again, your statement that he is known to the DfT is also misleading. I have the FOI [Freedom of Information] paperwork.
Would the DfT like to comment on that aspect please?
The reply received from the DfT on October 27th at 5.11pm simply stated “Please refer to our statement below - we don't have anything further to add.”
But curiously, the IOW Council said on October 27th to the editor of Railway herald, Richard Tuplin that the DfT HAD been involved in the appointment.
In wishing to explore the options and ramifications of suggestions concerning Island Line made by the Isle of Wight MP and his team, a face to face interview was requested. This was confirmed in writing, arranged for 930am on 14th October at the Constituency office in Newport, Isle of Wight.
This was cancelled just before 5pm the evening before, by email and the author arrived for the interview unaware that it had been cancelled. It had been cancelled because the appointment of Chris Garnett, a long-tern friend and colleague of Nick Finney was described by Mr Finney as a ‘gamechanger’.
Subsequent requests to reschedule the interview and to explain the ‘gamechanger’ comment have been declined by the MP’s office.
The Isle of Wight Community Rail Partnership will be seeking IOW resident’s views on the future of Island Line when the DfT Consultation is launched in the near future.
Mr Finney and Andrew Turner MP have now been challenged to attend a public debate and press conference on Island Line to clearly explain their railway policy, although no answer had been received by the time this was posted.
Published in conjunction with The Railway Magazine and Railway Herald