Published: 4th August 2015
The only vertically integrated part of the National Rail network, the Isle of Wight Island Line, has come under threat of closure following the collapse of franchise extension negotiations between the Department for Transport (DfT) and Stagecoach South West Trains (SSWT).
There are fears that because of local political infighting, the unique railway operating and maintenance arrangement covering the 8 ½ mile Island Line between Ryde Pierhead and Shanklin is under threat of closure when the franchise ends. The line loses a reported three million pounds a year and the local MP Andrew Turner has suggested the line be run by the local community divorced from the national network thus removing the financial safety net from being part of a large franchise.
The 1938 built former Northern Line tube stock used on the line will be 79 years old at the end of the franchise in 2017. The line needs new stock which will bring higher lease charges considerably increasing the financial deficit. The IOW Council, which has even closed most public toilets to save money, would not be able to fund the line’s continuing operation as a community based operation as in 2010, they also made the Community Rail Manager redundant.
The line has not seen any modernisation investment since electrification in early 1967 with only ongoing maintenance carried out on the 45mph railway. In fact, the double track between Ryde Pierhead to Ryde tunnel was closed 10 years ago reducing the Island’s track mileage by 7.5% to make savings.
In January 2015, the Island’s MP Andrew Turner suggested running steam services all year round to Ryde but forgot to include the IOW Steam Railway (IOWSR) in his consultation. They have repeated this assertion again in the local paper in late July.
And in any case, the only modern powerful locomotive they have is an Ivatt tank engine No. 41298 and this is over 60 years old!
The IOWSR told rail.co.uk that they were not interested in taking over Island Line and Mr Turner has not explained how steam hauled services would be able to run through Ryde tunnel. The trackbed was raised in the 1967 electrification scheme and clearances only permit tube stock through it. (See http://www.rail.co.uk/rail-news/2015/steaming-to-ryde/ for details)
In February this year, the Wessex Alliance visited the Island to explore options for the line including total closure. The row re-ignited last month with Andrew Turner and the IOW Council Leader Councillor Jonathan Bacon both suggesting the line be turned over to local ownership outside the protection of a franchise.
The row was stoked by Minutes of a meeting between Rail Minister Claire Perry, Mr Turner and Mr Bacon saying that splitting the line away from the SSWT franchise and being run as a community based undertaking was one option for the future.
Mr Turner MP has suggested that the experience of operating Shanklin theatre and a swimming pool as community based operation could be used to run the railway in a similar business mode. This notion has been ridiculed locally - including by Shanklin theatre.
At a meeting in May 2014, with SSWT, the local MP and council were informed by SSWT that Ryde Pier would require £8million spending on it for repairs. Wightlink, owners of the road section of Ryde pier, had to spend over £3million pounds in late 2010 for heavy repairs to their section of the pier.
Mr Turner in a written statement, said that SSWT had told him it would be easier to close Island Line and replace it with buses but recognised that the Council wanted to keep it running.
Island Line owns six two-car 1938 built trains and to replace these with modern stock could cost £20million. This may have been one of the sticking points in the franchise extension negotiations collapsing as capital funding £30million for a heavily loss making venture would not have been attractive to SSWT. Hence the breakdown in the franchise extension negotiations creating uncertainty about this unique line’s future.
A new pressure group has been formed to lead the fight to keep Island Line contained within a wider regional rail franchise. The Keep Island Line in Franchise (KILF) Campaign Group has been set up after the line has been threatened by a proposal to transfer it to a Community Interest Company. The campaign team is a mix of political activists from opposite ends of the spectrum alongside individuals already involved in existing community-led activity.
KILF has one principal aim which is to secure the future of the Island train service to remain part of the next South Western rail franchise from 2017 with a sustainable, reliable and viable service on the existing route for the duration of the next franchise period. The process to award the next franchise will commence in a few months and KILF intends to influence the DfT beforehand.
KILF is to be launched at a public meeting at Shanklin Theatre on Tuesday 11th August at 730pm and anyone with an interest in Island Line is invited. KILF has asked IW Council leader Jonathan Bacon and Island MP Andrew Turner and his transport advisor Nick Finney who are all in favour of transferring Island Line into a Community Interest Company have been invited.
If the line is not within a major franchise, KILF believes service cuts and station closures would be more likely as the route would not be subsidised by a wider train operation as now. At the meeting, KILF will outline the current situation, take in the views of those in attendance and agree a course of action for next steps.
Stewart Blackmore – Labour’s IW 2015 parliamentary candidate said: “This is clearly an issue of great concern to many people who rely on Island Line. While there has obviously been much effort spent promote transferring Island Line to a Community Interest Company, no one has yet bothered to engage with the community which relies on the service.
That is what we will be doing on 11th August. The Island deserves a serious long-term strategy for this service – not men playing trains and this is much bigger than party politics.”
David Pugh – a former Conservative leader of the Isle of Wight Council – said: “Along with many Shanklin residents, I am deeply concerned about the plans to remove Island Line from the regional franchise. It defies logic, and as a regular commuter I believe these issues are far more important than local political sensitivities and party boundaries. “I hope over the coming weeks we will see many more people coming on board with this view.”
Stuart George, Chairman of the IW Bus & Rail Users’ Group added: “There are mixed messages from the IW Council and increasingly baffling comments from the MP. We need a rational discussion on the future of Island Line - one based on the reality that the service must remain part of the national rail network. “It is wholly unrealistic and impractical to believe a local community group could manage or afford to run this rail service with its track maintenance and rolling stock costs.
Chris Quirk, Chairman of the Shanklin Theatre & Community Trust added: “As one of my colleagues outlined in the County Press (The local paper), benchmarking the possible community management of a train service with that of Shanklin Theatre is a poor comparison.
There is a strong feeling that the discussions held so far between the IW Council / MP and the Government have been against the best interests of the Island – and in particular those who rely on Island Line.”
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