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Partners branch out
Planning – 27 July 2007

Community rail partnerships are now proving their worth in promoting sustainable travel, economic opportunities and regeneration in countryside areas, contends Mark Smulian.

Rural railways can sometimes seem the preserve of a handful of local passengers, knots of anoraked enthusiasts and a few summer tourists. But they could offer much greater opportunities for a modal shift from road traffic, increased tourism and regeneration.

At least one property company believes it has seen the scope for branch lines to be upgraded and extended to provide sustainable transport for new residential developments (see panel). Local authorities in East Sussex are carrying out their own studies to confirm Kilbride Group's contention that a reinstated Lewis to Uckfield line could be financed by planning gain from some 4,000 new homes earmarked for the area.

Yet most branch lines lose money. The rail operators within whose franchises they fall tend to see them as irritants that divert resources. Without a little tender loving care, there is always a danger that these lines could fall into disuse.

This is why the Department for Transport (DfT) developed the community rail partnerships (CRPs) strategy to promote branch lines in 2004. Needless to say, community rail status brings no extra government funding. Indeed, its object is to cut subsidy by increasing patronage. It provides a mechanism for operators and local interests, usually led by councils, to work out what is needed to promote rail use and then find the resources.

Some results have been impressive, leading to patronage rises of up to 50 per cent. Partnerships have been able to publicise services, improve stations, create linked bus services and provide park-and-ride sites. But in some areas opportunities to increase sustainable transport at relatively modest cost have yet to be fully exploited.

England's rural lines carry some 30 million passengers a year. In 2004 they cost 300 million in subsidy. It sounds a substantial sum, although it pales into insignificance against the 88 million a week enjoyed by the network as a whole. The lines chosen for the strategy are characterised by maximum speed limits of 75mph, single or occasionally double tracks, a single operator, no metropolitan commuter services and little freight traffic.

Several CRPs pre-date the DfT strategy, but it pulled them together into a coherent whole. The partnerships do not actually run the trains. Instead, they work with operators and Network Rail to promote the routes and services. Some work with local schools to brighten up stations with artwork and others have formed friends' groups to involve volunteers.

DfT studies have shown that lines with CRPs have demonstrably higher revenue growth than other similar routes. Four-fifths of partnerships have pushed revenue growth above ten per cent, against 50 per cent of other lines. A quarter of them have achieved more than 30 per cent growth, compared with a 13 per cent increase for others.

It can be difficult to measure how much a community rail line has contributed to regeneration, because it will rarely be the only initiative in hand. But examples include the restoration of Skegness's crumbling station in the middle of the town's regeneration area and the Mid Cheshire Rail Partnership's transformation of Northwich's decaying station into something that, as the DfT puts it, "attracts rather than frightens away potential passengers".

Devon and Cornwall have six community rail lines, the UK's largest concentration. The star turn is the St Ives line, which has increased revenue by 50 per cent since the partnership began. "We have seen significant passenger growth on all these lines," notes Cornwall County Council transport policy officer Bill Mitcham.

County council puts money into rail route

Cornwall has invested heavily in rail. The county council is funding the widening of the main line to Penzance, an essential link to the rest of the country. "The railway is probably essential to the sustainability of movement in terms of the environment and of general well-being," says Mitcham. "We are trying to expand employment under EU Objective 1 funding, so people need to be able to access jobs."

Devon and Cornwall CRP manager Richard Burningham points out that CRPs have a long history in the West Country. In his opinion, however, the community rail strategy "has really kick-started things by involving the local authorities and the operators".

One major project under construction is a park-and-ride site for the St Ives Line, where two-thirds of passengers board from a dilapidated platform in a field halfway along the line. "In August there can be 20 times as many journeys as in January," Burningham explains. "At the moment we have 200 people getting on at an intermediate station. That is difficult when there is only a three-minute turnaround time, so it would help to have the park-and-ride at a terminal."

The partnership's main project for the Maritime Line is a passing loop to allow the service to double its frequency to half-hourly intervals. "This line is very competitive because the road from Truro to Falmouth is busy. The train does the journey in 25 minutes, while road can take three times that," says Burningham. "It helps employment in Falmouth and is mainly for local people, not tourists."

A park-and-ride on the A38 is planned for the Looe Line, while Devon's Exeter to Barnstaple service has seen 50 per cent passenger growth due to the provision of a regular service, price cuts for cheap day returns and general economic growth. "It definitely helps to have a regular service, not one that runs at odd times that people find hard to remember," Burningham finds.

For the future, the DfT believes that some 40 more lines could benefit from partnerships and it is looking at whether some could be detached from franchises and run as stand-alone social enterprises. Partnership has made the prospects for small branch lines a great deal brighter than they were as appendages of the national system. They offer an opportunity for local planners and regeneration specialists to directly influence transport infrastructure.

CASE STUDIES - NORFOLK

Ian Dinmore manages the partnerships behind the Bittern and Wherry Lines for Norfolk County Council. The Bittern partnership was set up after rail privatisation, when there were only 11 trains on weekdays and three on Sundays between Norwich and Sheringham. Now it runs 18 on weekdays and 12 on summer Sundays.

The county council contributes 60,000, including Dinmore's salary, and is the main funder. Other councils, community groups and businesses are also involved. Food processor Heinz, for example, looks after the station next to its Worstead factory. Dinmore says additional funding comes from "whatever I can beg, steal and borrow".

The Bittern Line's contribution to modal shift comes in two forms - links with a coastal bus service for tourists and a convenient way in to Norwich for commuters. Services are publicised through an annual guide but the partnership also runs promotions to encourage use among people visiting anything from real ale pubs to historic churches.

The line is reducing commuter car journeys. "Traffic to and from Norwich is measured at Wroxham Bridge and is declining by four to five per cent a year," Dinmore reports. "We have gone from 150,000 to 500,000 passengers a year. One problem is that trains get packed with school pupils, which deters commuters. Our next major project is a dedicated commuter service from North Walsham to Norwich."

The success of the Bittern Line led to a partnership for the Wherry Lines, which run from Norwich to Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft. The lines help regeneration by improving accessibility to both resorts and by helping residents of the towns, both of which suffer from high unemployment, to access work in Norwich.

The double-track line to Lowestoft is heavily used because road links are poor and the train is quicker than the bus. Howeber, the Great Yarmouth route does not run to the resort's centre and its single track cannot compete with buses running at intervals of 15 to 20 minutes. "Great Yarmouth is a challenge except on summer weekends, when we need every train we can get," says Dinmore.

Living by the line

Developer Kilbride Group has set up a sustainable transport development fund to support a 500 million development programme. The idea is to build homes near to actual or planned railways - a concept it hopes will prove attractive to planners because it reduces car commuting.

Kilbride's main passenger projects include the reinstatement of the Lewes to Uckfield line in East Sussex, on which a feasibility study has reported positively, and the extension of the Tamar Valley Line from Plymouth to Gunnislake as far as Tavistock. The firm also has a number of freight projects on the drawing board.

"Our concept is to use the community rail idea and expand it to its full potential," explains Kilbride Community Rail managing director Peter Frost. "Rather than having the development first, we look at the process from the opposite end. If this infrastructure were there, what could we develop?"

COMMUNITY RAILWAYS

- Abbey St Albans to Watford Junction

Atlantic Coast Newquay to Par

Barton Barton-on-Humber to Cleethorpes

Bittern Norwich to Sheringham

Derwent Valley Matlock to Derby

East Lancashire Preston to Colne

Esk Valley Whitby to Middlesbrough

Gainsborough Sudbury to Marks Tey

Island Ryde to Shanklin

Looe Valley Looe to Liskeard

Maritime Falmouth to Truro

Marston Vale Bedford to Bletchley

Penistone Barnsley to Huddersfield

Poacher Skegness to Grantham

St Ives St Ives to St Erth

Tamar Valley Gunnislake to Plymouth

Tarka Exeter to Barnstaple

Wherry Norwich to Lowestoft and Yarmouth