By Phil Marsh

Politics and politicians slug it out over the Southwestern Franchise which has just two bidders – while the Garnett report is rejected by Isle of Wight Council

Published: 18th March 2016

Isle of Wight Steam Railway comes to the rescue of Island Line passengers

The Department for Transport (DfT) has announced that it has just two bidders for the Southwestern Franchise, one of the only two profitable UK franchises. The franchise is, and has been operated since privatisation by Stagecoach under the South West Trains banner. It operates between London Waterloo, Portsmouth, Isle of Wight, Weymouth, Bristol and Exeter via Salisbury and Yeovil. The other bidder is First Group.

The franchise has been subject to a considerable amount of politics since the DfT and Stagecoach ended the so called’ Alliance’ and then failed to agree on a franchise extension with a gap understood to be around £220million in any deal.

Public accounts committee blames DfT

The DfT has picked up the blame for only attracting a pair of bidders, because of micromanagement and political interference. This was the conclusion of the House of Commons public accounts committee who for once have drawn conclusions recognised by the rail industry.

The report says that fewer franchise bidders are attracted because the DfT is too rigid in its specifications which in turn stifles innovation and flexibility of how to deliver train services. Another aspect is the result of the huge investment in the rail network as franchisees will have to maintain train services when routes are being electrified or modernised which inevitably brings its own operational problems.

All-Party Parliamentary Group report on South Western Rail Franchise consultation

One clear example of political interference by ill-informed MPs is the just published above report signed by MPs on the franchise map. The most political is Island Line, the 8.5 mile Isle of Wight railway running between Ryde and Shanklin which has been widely reported as losing three million pounds a year. But South West Trains has put in writing to pressure group Keep Island Line in the Franchise (KILF) that they have had to pay storm damage repair costs of two million to Network Rail before their track lease expires in two years time.

This means that in theory, Island Line’s losses will reduce to one million pounds a year but when societal benefits are taken into consideration, the tourist economy and the quantity of traffic on Island roads, is it such a bad price to pay?

For example, without the rail service, would islanders be able to commute to Portsmouth as the Wightlink fastcat service would lose passengers and may only run in the summer the MPs suggest.

Trams or buses….

The real curious proposal is that by Isle of Wight MP Andrew Turner, who has suggested that Island Line should be turned into a guided busway or a light railway (trams). The MP has variously promoted the railway being run by volunteers, by the Council, or turned into a tram system.

Indeed, his ‘Transport Advisor’ Nick Finney spent 2015 lobbying the DFT and Rail Minister Claire Perry on this matter while engaging his long term friend and business associate, Chris Garnett to write a report on the future of Island Line.

This he concluded should be taken outside a franchise thus removing any financial protection it has as part of a huge franchise as now and trains should be replaced by trams. He also suggested selling of railway land which of course the proceeds would go to the Government and not to Island Line.

The Garnett Report was debated at an IOW Council meeting on March 16 and the Council decided to reject its findings in favour of a far more detailed and technical appraisal submitted voluntarily by Mark Brinton, an Island resident who has the experience of a 40 year railway career to daw on.

The Council re-affirmed its policy decision made on 2 September 2015 that Island Line should remain within the franchise system as part of the Southwestern Franchise. While welcoming some of Mr Garnett’s analysis, [the council] disagrees with his conclusion that there does not appear to be any clear logical arguments for Island Line being part of a wider franchise.

The council further agreed that they support Island Line remaining as a fully integral part of the South Western rail franchise for the entire duration of its post-2017 period.

The council has also submitted a copy of Mr Brinton’s report to the DfT as a late representation to the consultation process and asks Ministers and the Rail Executive to take its content into account in preparing the Invitation To Tender (ITT) – to ensure that the franchise specification invites bidders to set out how they would invest in, maintain and improve the service throughout this time.

Unintended consequences

The All Party report also wants to ‘Significantly increase the capacity for passengers between the main towns and cities of the region, Basingstoke, Winchester, Andover, Havant, Eastleigh, Portsmouth, Southampton amongst other places.

This is an obvious statement to make but the MPs also want to speed up the what they call ‘long suburban’ services to Basingstoke to provide some additional capacity on other trains. This is jargon for cutting out stops and improving journey times thus creating extra capacity but cutting out stops means other stations are not served so more trains are needed therefore obviously bringing more congestion to the network.

Isle of Wight Steam Railway (IOWSR) rescues stranded Island Line passengers

The first day of services on the IOWSR brought relief to Island Line passengers as just before 11am, an Island Line electric train heading for Ryde failed at Smallbrook Junction, one of a handful of UK stations without road access. By chance, an IOWSR steam service was at the adjacent platform which duly carried the 20 Island Line passengers to Havenstreet, where waiting taxis took the passengers on to Ryde.

Peter Vail, General Manager of the Isle of Wight Steam Railway commented “We were only too pleased to be of assistance. It was a little ironic that our locomotive in service is the newly restored Ivatt 41298 which was built in 1951. This is modern technology compared to the 1938 tube stock operated by Island Line.”

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