Rail services across the North could be further curtailed beginning in the spring of 2023, despite promises of “leveling off” and ridership recovering faster than the national average.
A document presented to northern leaders reveals that the Treasury’s latest funding package for operators could soon lead to some “difficult decisions”, meaning that “it is not clear that there will be sufficient funding to continue to support all the services included in next year’s plan. .
Any cuts beginning in 2023 would be in addition to an already planned reduced schedule beginning next December due to chronic capacity limitations through Castlefield.
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Andy Burnham called the threatened cut “fundamentally unacceptable”, while politicians in Liverpool, Warrington, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire raised similar concerns and warned the move amounted to the “controlled decline” of the northern network after the pandemic.
There are also fears that reduced funding could lead to the loss of guards on trains or staff at stations.
The document, drafted by Transport for the North officials and presented to leaders at their latest meeting, says indicative funding provided in the fall spending review means operators are now required to make “substantial cost savings.” .
Nationwide, services for future years are being drawn up based on the schedule that was in place last month, he says, at which point services were only at about 85% of pre-Covid levels in the North. .
However, rail companies have been trying to bring services back incrementally, including a Northern service between Hull and Bridlington and a direct Transpennine Express service between Liverpool and Hull, both expected this year.
The document highlights that throughout the north, the number of passengers has returned faster than the national average.
“The potential for long-term and sustained change in working practices in the service-based economy of the London and South East region is likely to change traditional travel patterns,” he says.
“In contrast, the strength of the rail recovery in the North is indicative of the extent to which rail remains critical to the Northern economy.”
Therefore, “there is a strong case for a level of funding to support the continued growth of the railway serving the north of England,” he adds, noting that every pound spent is estimated to provide an economic return of 4.30 sterling pounds.
But cuts to Treasury rail appropriations in the spending review, after a period in which the northern network was bailed out with more than £1bn during the pandemic, now meant 2023 and 2024 would be “particularly challenging” .
As a result, “difficult decisions” may have to be made, he concludes.
Speaking to other northern leaders, Andy Burnham said he was “very worried about what this means”.
“It’s what this newspaper doesn’t say that worries me,” he said.
“We have been asked to accept, or will be asked to accept, a reduced calendar for December 2022 and this is talking about more budget cuts on top of that. And he says it will particularly affect years two and three, from 2023 onwards.”
Noting officials’ view that it was not ‘clear’ that there would be sufficient funding to support all services, he added: “What does that mean? What services are going to be lost here?
There was “no way we were being asked to consider” further service cuts, he said, adding: “It seems to me that this is a plan for the controlled decline of the railways in the post-pandemic period.”
West Yorkshire Mayor Tracy Brabin echoed that view, warning that the pandemic was being used as a cover for rail cuts.
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“We are already having cuts under the Covid smokescreen, whereas at Leeds station, we are at 110% pre-Covid capacity on weekends,” he said, adding that he would not “tolerate any cuts in the station staff.
Liverpool’s Liam Robinson said his city region was “very concerned” about the principle of cutting off rail services.
“We were promised an ambitious and growing rail network,” he said. “Coming out of Covid, our patronage is higher comparatively than other parts of the country.
“Every pound we spend on the railways is worth £4.30.
“God, that’s a brilliant investment, isn’t it? Surely we should focus on all those kinds of aspects.”
He added that the government should seek efficiencies in the cost of rolling stock, including a tax on windfall profits for companies that lease it from operators, a system that he said meant old trains were paid for three or four times during its useful life.
Lincolnshire’s representative, Conservative councilor Tom Smith, said the network serving his county was already at a “bare minimum” and “barely usable”, meaning any further cuts would make it “unviable”.
“Where else can you get value for money like that, certainly in local government or any sector like that?” he told him about the cost-benefit of the railway investment.
“I think it’s one of the best value for money figures I’ve ever seen. So divestment is absolutely crazy.”
TfN agreed to formally raise its objections to the government after the discussion.
The Department for Transportation has been contacted for comment.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.