News Tuesday, December 29th

A different track - decision due on the new approach to rail services in Herefordshire

THE future for rail services in Herefordshire is set to take a different track.

Herefordshire Council is currently determining the part it can play in a proposed West Midlands rail partnership ahead of the potential devolution of the present regional rail  franchise run by London Midland - and managed centrally by the Department for Transport.

But the idea of a rail link to Rotherwas serving Skylon Park has reached the end of the line.

The council confirms - bluntly - that no further work will be undertaken to progress such a scheme.

A business case study undertaken as a response to support the scheme secured in the council chamber found that the link would require on-going subsidy without any obvious representation of value for money.

Dropping the link saves the council £125k in reserves that would have been put towards its progress.

Instead, the council is considering membership of a new limited company to be called West Midlands Rail.

Herefordshire Live has learned that the council has already put £15,145 towards the costs of the proposal for the current financial year, with contributions for 2016/17 and 2017/18 set out as £13,200 and £7,464 respectively and, as yet, unbudgeted.

Backed by the government, West Midlands Rail has gone out to consultation on how a future regional rail franchise would work.

Whitehall wants the next operator to support major infrastructure improvements and tackle over-crowding, cancellations and delays.

Earlier this month, the government announced that it had awarded London Midland a new contract to continue running services on the West Midlands network until October 2017 when the new franchise is due to start.

This deal should bring £13m worth of improvements over the next two years including more services, some 6,600 extra seats, free on-board Wi-Fi and better ticketing.

The new franchise, however, is expected to lead the way in rail services being managed locally through West Midlands Rail rather than central government.

Behind the scenes, then, the council - subject to legal agreements being satisfactorily finalised - is looking to delegate director level authority to confirming the council’s inclusion in West Midlands Rail with the council leader appointed as a director of the company and the cabinet member for transport and roads a substitute.

The council could stay out, but that risks reducing its influence over the re-franchising process and any subsequent devolved powers to manage the franchise locally.

Joining the partnership later would require a 75 per cent supporting vote of existing partners – which cannot be guaranteed.

The council says it is “keen” to back a better rail service in the county and has lobbied both government and Network Rail for greater investment in local infrastructure to improve service reliability and capacity.

Government set out proposals for rail decentralisation and invited expressions of interest in its consultation document of 2012 – ‘Rail Decentralisation – Devolving Decision Making on Passenger Rail Services in England’.

Three detailed expressions of interest to pursue devolution of powers were received, including one from Centro relating to the West Midlands franchise operated by London Midland.

Government has noted that Centro’s proposal sought to include a wider area than that covered by its boundary of operation and was based on a Birmingham travel to work area – this included services between Hereford and Birmingham.

Overall, Hereford Station has seen a 24 per cent increase in passenger usage.

On latest available figures, the station had a total entry/exit of 1.2million over 2014/15 - up 48,000 from the previous year.

Hereford to Birmingham demand is forecast to increase 59 per cent by 2024 – an assumption based on predicted fare rises.

Demand at stations along the route is also expected to rise significantly, with 47% growth from Ledbury to Birmingham and 34% growth from Colwall – again, with assumptions based on predicted fare rises.

The service between Hereford and Birmingham New Street currently operates hourly.

Analysis of present passenger numbers shows that to enable the capacity of the route to meet expected future demand, trains will either need to be lengthened or run more frequently.

The current Public Performance Measure for London Midland services between Hereford and Birmingham is approximately 85%.

This means that 15% of services are over five minutes late to their terminating station.

Line speeds on the Hereford to Birmingham route are relatively low and fluctuate considerably.

Between Hereford and Ledbury the track is mostly 70mph running, before a stretch of 40mph line through Ledbury - falling as low as 25mph in the down direction for a short period.

There are single line sections between Hereford and Birmingham identified as having the - theoretical - capacity of four trains per hour in both directions.

Even with this level of capacity, the present pattern of usage does indicate that there is the potential capacity to operate more trains over some parts of the route.

A section of single track broadly between Hereford and Great Malvern has long been seen as a significant constraint to capacity on the route.

The single track section between Shelwick junction, near Hereford, and Ledbury is recognised as operating at maximum capacity, constraining the potential for more services along this route.

In rail circles, that makes a case for lengthening trains to provide additional capacity as likely to be more cost effective than re-doubling this section of the route.

To run an identified optimum of six trains per hour – three per direction – requires approximately 2½ miles of double track between Colwall Tunnel and Ledbury Tunnel and approximately 6½ miles of double track between Ledbury Station and Shelwick junction.

London Midland generally operates two and three car services between Hereford and Birmingham, with four and five cars on the busier services.

There is only one morning peak service from Hereford into Birmingham arriving before 9am which is operated by a 5 car set and experiences strained capacity.

However, there are four services from Great Malvern and one from Worcester Shrub Hill which arrive into Birmingham before 9am and seen as meeting commuter demand.

In the afternoon and PM peak, load factors are relatively high leaving Birmingham but generally fall beyond University and Bromsgrove.

Data does not currently suggest a serious passenger capacity issue, with no services operating with passengers in excess of capacity.

However, it is recognised that any future increase in passengers could be restricted as services become increasingly crowded, with train lengthening and more frequent services seen as solutions.

By comparison, passenger capacity on the Shrewsbury-Hereford route is relatively high, however information provided by Arriva Trains Wales - the Wales and Borders franchise including operational responsibility for Hereford and Leominster stations -  suggests that many services are full and standing only in small sections between Hereford-Ludlow and Church Stretton-Shrewsbury, with the school/college flow being a particular cause of high passenger loads.

The other rail passenger franchise to operate in the county is the Great Western operated by the newly re-branded Great Western Railway – formerly First Great Western – which provides services between Hereford and London via Worcester and the Cotswolds using the same line as the West Midlands franchise.

ROTHERWAS – THE END OF THE LINE

Herefordshire Council’s current cabinet was never really convinced by calls for a rail link to Rotherwas.

Its predecessor committed to the political convenience of a business case study into such a scheme on the basis of opposition support shown in the council chamber.

Essentially, that commitment gave the Tories a get out.

Outside the chamber, they were sure the case study would re-inforce their reservations – to the extent of ruling the extension out.

Earlier this month  the resulting report did as expected finding that a link to - and station at - Rotherwas did not  represent value for money and would require an on-going revenue subsidy.

Now, the official line from the council is:  “The proposed rail link and new rail station is not prioritised in the corporate plan or in the local transport plan.”

Bluntly, that translates to: “No further work will be undertaken to progress this scheme.”

Opposition objections have subsequently been shunted to the side-lines with council saying that calls for further feasibility work would be contrary to the decision taken in March this year stipulating that such work would be dependent on evidence of a satisfactory business case.

Instead, the council points to its prioritising of “significant support and investment” for economic regeneration and improved access at Rotherwas - and subsequently the Hereford Enterprise Zone - over the past decade.

In January this year, the council’s then cabinet agreed to investigate the initial feasibility of a plan to reinstate a passenger rail line and station into Rotherwas.

The proposal was to be assessed in line with national guidance.

Following the budget setting process in February, the then cabinet member considered a further report – out in March - that determined the circumstances in which additional funding  of up to £125K  might be drawn down from reserves to commission more detailed feasibility work during 2015/16.

It was agreed that the commissioning of further work would be dependent on the outcome of the initial feasibility work – that had a budget of £10K.

Network Rail provided a review of the likely capital costs for the scheme and these were used in the resulting study.

London Midland also supplied service specific information to assist with the business case review and demand forecasts.

The key findings from the study were:

  • A new station on an existing rail line would need to generate an annual passenger demand of at least 70,000 journeys.
  • The forecast of current demand if the new station was operational now would be 19,300 journeys per year.
  • Future total demand - incorporating full development of the enterprise zone and strategic housing - would be 34,100 journeys per year.
  • Capital costs of £11.5m.
  • A predicted revenue shortfall of £118K a year.

Present punctuality problems posed by limited capacity on the Hereford to Birmingham line were identified as further undermining the viability of the proposed service.

It was “thought likely”  that a significant number of services would be cancelled to avoid cumulative delays and disruption.

Though the study concludes that the Rotherwas rail proposal is not backed by a business case, it does suggest an alternative in better bus services – even a special shuttle between Hereford Station and Rotherwas.

Costings have already been developed for such a shuttle on the basis of every 15 minutes during peak periods and 30 minutes off peak.

But the identified £160K a year in revenue subsidy is a sum the council currently cannot afford in the context of on-going budget reductions for subsidised bus services.

A partnership project with the Hereford Enterprise Zone, however, was pitched as having the potential to make it happen.

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