Monday, March 13, 2006

April 21 deadline looming for Department for Transport rail consultation

RMT is working with sister rail unions and other rail campaigners for the protection and expansion of rail services to be at the heart of new procedures. The deadline for responses to a Department for Transport consultation is 21 April and any organisation or individual can respond, including local rail campaigners and rail users' groups.

The DfT consultation document deals with closure procedures and minor modifications guidance. The document is a direct result of the Railways Act 2005 which promised that Government would consult on new closures guidance before they were introduced into law. RMT members will remember that when the 2005 Act was going through Parliament we raised the criticism that at a time when rail was carrying more passengers than at any time since the 1950s it was bizarre that so much of the Act addressed the closure of lines, services and stations.

Since the Act was passed there have been disturbing press reports that branch lines should be concreted over and that many lightly used stations could be closed.

In 2007 the DfT will produce their High Level Output Specification and also announce how much money they have available in the railway pot. There are indications that the Treasury is seeking to cut £1billion a year from the railway budget. It is in this context that the closures guidance should be seen.

On the face of it the guidance looks acceptable. Once a closure is proposed a cost-benefit analysis is conducted with monetary values placed on a series of factors including the impact that closure will have on the environment, accessibility, safety and the economy. However two things are important to bear in mind. Firstly the cost-benefit analysis is already used and all too often utilised as a barrier to investment on rail network. Secondly, and probably more importantly, consultants employed to conduct the analysis are likely to come up with the results that are required by the DfT. Put simply if the DfT wants figures that support a closure then the consultant will provide them.

Regrettably, the guidance once again raises the spectre of bustitution and makes clear that in addition to the money which could be saved by closure the potential value of the land which could be sold as a result of closure should be taken into account by the cost -benefit analysis. Commenting on the procedures with specific regard to bustitution the highly respected Rail Business Intelligence journal recently said: "the fundamental problem is an underlying assumption that buses, which obviously incur negligible infrastructure costs, are in principle as good as the rail services they replace. The danger is that bustitution will inevitably emerge as the cheapest option for a substantial proportion of the network as the noose tightens".

The new guidance scraps the current system where the regional Rail Passengers Committee produces a report on the hardship likely to be caused by the proposed cut. Under the rules to be scrapped final decision over closure rested with the democratically elected Secretary of State for Transport.

For the future the new procedure will allow Network Rail, Train Operating Companies, or a rail funding authority (DfT, Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, PTAs or the Mayor of London) to propose a closure. The decision to go ahead will be made by the unelected Office of Rail Regulation.

The consultation process itself requires that notices are placed in both local and national newspapers and in the stations affected by the proposed closures. Organisations have 12 weeks after the second newspaper notice appears to respond.

Trade Unions and local rail users' groups are not in the list of bodies and organisations that have, by law, to be consulted with. Significantly there is no obligation that the consultation process holds public meetings or hearings to discuss the closure proposals. This is a serious omission. It is vital that local communities and trades unions are able to meet publicly and collectively in order to hold to account those who are proposing the removal of local rail services.

The full closures procedure document can be found at the
Department for Transport website.

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