Isle of Wight resident Michael Taplin offers an insider’s view of current proposals to convert the loss-making heavy rail line to tramway operation.
Island Line is a unique part of the British rail network, 13.7km (8.5 miles) on the Isle of Wight linking the ferry berth at Ryde Pier Head with the seaside resort of Shanklin (connecting along the way with the Isle of Wight Steam Railway at a station with no road or footpath access).
It is the survivor of a network of steam railway lines serving the island that were closed in the 1960s (the Beeching era), and used to run on from Shanklin to Ventnor, but that section closed in April 1966. The remainder underwent a transformation, emerging in March 1967 as an electrified line, using third-rail electrification and worked by former London Underground trains.
Why was this section retained? Traffic from the Portsmouth ferry to the resorts of Sandown and Shanklin was still heavy (seven-coach trains were operated in the summer) and buses could not reach the pier head along the 700m (2250ft) Victorian pier, so a low-cost electrification was chosen. Why Tube trains? Well they were available and cost next to nothing as London Transport was replacing this 1923-34 stock. It was also thought that as the electrical equipment was located in compartments above floor level, problems with salt water at high tide could be avoided.
One significant aspect of the electrification project that still resonates in today’s debate was Ryde tunnel (357m/1173ft), technically a covered way, which enables trains to reach Ryde Esplanade from Ryde St Johns. It was built to take steam trains and railway carriages, but was prone to flooding from Monktonmead Brook, whose path was diverted when the railway connection was built. On electrification track through the tunnel was raised, as Tube trains with limited clearance were the future. This meant that when the original electric trains had to be replaced in 1989, British Rail was stuck with buying second-hand Tube stock again, the 1938 stock that still runs on the line. Underfloor electrical equipment has not proven too difficult to maintain and operate, though occasionally easterly gales and high tide mean the trains cannot use the pier for a couple of hours.
Transition from BR to privatisation
In latter BR days the line was part of Network South East, with the stock painted accordingly. Under rail privatisation in 1996, Island Line was advertised as a standalone franchise, with the franchisee also responsible for maintenance. Stagecoach Group took over operations from October 1996. Come renewal time in 2007, it was accepted that this tiny franchise made little sense, and the line became part of the South West Trains (SWT) franchise, and Stagecoach won again. The Department for Transport designated the line as a community railway in 2006, and stations were repainted in Southern Railway heritage-style cream and green, while the trains were given London Transport red livery, but with yellow end panels.
Now it is time for another franchise renewal, the UK Department for Transport having declined to award Stagecoach the possible two-year extension on what is understood to be Britain’s most profitable franchise. The MP for the Isle of Wight, Andrew Turner, kicked off an unfortunate train of thought by suggesting to the Government’s rail minister, Clare Perry MP, that the line should be transferred to a Community Interest Company and run by local people. As a result the franchise consultation includes the requirement ‘the next franchisee should develop ideas to turn Island Line into a separate self-sustaining business’, though there is no other branch line, here or elsewhere, that has this requirement imposed upon it. The prospect of Island Line being taken out of the SWT deal has alarmed local people and led to the establishment of a lobbying group (KILF, Keep Island Line in the Franchise) to campaign for its retention.
The Isle of Wight Council (IWC), the unitary authority of local government for the island, is the transport authority, but has no real transport expertise. Its highway responsibilities have been devolved to the private sector under a Private Finance Initiative, it no longer subsidises rural bus services, and its school bus operation is essentially managed by Southern Vectis, the only local bus operator. The Council is also struggling with budgetary constraints that mean in 2017-18 it is unlikely to be able to afford to meet its statutory duties, even after ditching all budgets for non-statutory duties.
It was no doubt pleased that Christopher Garnett OBE, a railwayman with family ties to and a holiday home on the island, offered to produce a report on the future of Island Line on a pro bono basis. Garnett was one-time Managing Director of GNER (operator of the UK’s East Coast main line route before handing back that responsibility).
‘The Garnett Report’
It is Mr Garnett’s report that brings the debate within the scope of TAUT, for amongst his main suggestions is that the line should be turned into a tramway, operating single track with passing loops, on line-of-sight principles.
One of his arguments is that there are currently no surplus London Underground Limited (LUL) Tube trains that could be used to replace the 78-year-old Class 483 rolling stock that still provides daily service (the opportunity to acquire withdrawn Victoria Line trains a few years ago was missed). Garnett does not believe that LUL would willingly sell ten cars of 1972 stock from the Bakerloo Line, which might be the stop-gap solution. Rather he has his eyes on ten withdrawn Midland Metro T69 cars currently stored at Long Marston in the West Midlands. He suggests the track in Ryde tunnel could be lowered again to permit them to fit through (they are 3.7m high compared with 2.9m for a Class 483), adding that one Island Line track be given up so that IWSR can be extended from Smallbrook Junction to Ryde St Johns, in return for which the IWSR permanent way gang could carry out work on Island Line track.
Garnett admits that he had no source of figures, for either revenue or capital expenditure, when compiling his report; indeed figures relating to Island Line are difficult to segregate from the franchise, representing just 1-2% of SWT revenue and expenditure, and therefore prone to margins of error. Passenger numbers are said to have fallen from a peak of 1.67m in 2011-12 to less than 1.4m, but these numbers are based on tickets sold and do not reflect a significant level of missed fares arising from the slow-operating PORTIS ticket machines and the inability of conductors to pass between the cars while the train is moving due to Health & Safety assessments (the doors can be opened and shut from only one car). According to the DfT, Island Line annual revenue is GBP1m (EUR1.27m), whereas operating costs are GBP4m (EUR5.07m), but these conveniently round figures conceal the fact that GBP2.2m (EUR2.79) of costs is accounted for by Network Rail lease charges.
Island Line operates under a separate lease agreement with Network Rail rather than an access agreement as in other franchises. Responsibility for infrastructure maintenance and renewals are shared between the franchisee and Network Rail under this lease, which is due to expire in 2019 (and was thus clearly made on the assumption that the franchise would get a two-year extension). Network Rail is responsible for work 450mm below rail height and below (the formation), Island Line for maintaining everything above (the ballast); it subcontracts this work to Colas Rail.
The figure of GBP1m in revenue is also rather strange given that there are 1.4m tickets sold – is the average ticket value really 71p? Another reason for the drop in passengers is that in both 2014 and 2015 the line was closed for a number of weeks due to infrastructure failures, and the replacement buses ran only to Ryde Esplanade, carrying only a fraction of the normal rail passengers. It is not known how SWT allocates back office costs to Island Line.
Questioning a tramway conversion
An important question concerning a transition to a tramway is whether Island Line remains part of the National Rail network for the purposes of ticketing. At present a passenger can board in Shanklin and legitimately request a ticket to (say) Upper Tyndrum in the Scottish Highlands. The PORTIS machine will issue it in the same 60 seconds it takes to issue a ticket to Ryde (paying by credit card is another matter) – and it will include the ferry service to Portsmouth (with Wightlink getting its share eventually through the digital equivalent of the Railway Clearing House). Older readers will remember this was one of the downsides when the Tyne & Wear Metro was set up to provide service on former BR track.
Garnett postulates a mini-franchise operating a 20-minute service with trams. This would require the second platform at Shanklin to be re-activated, retention of the passing loop at Sandown, a dynamic passing loop at Brading and north thereof, and retention of two tracks between Ryde St Johns and Ryde Esplanade. Much station infrastructure work would be needed to permit the T69 cars to pick up and set down passengers, including a difficult reconstruction at Ryde Pier Head. The 1967 substation equipment will need replacing as at present only one two-car and one four-car train can draw power, a far cry from its heyday with a 15-minute service of seven-car trains.
Publication of the Garnett report has prompted KILF to issue its own extensive evaluation, written by Mark Brinton, the one-time Island Line electrical engineer. He takes issue with a number of Garnett’s assertions, including that line-of-sight tramway operation would be permitted. Clearly some form of automated signalling and trip stops would be required to preclude ‘cornfield meets’, particularly with 45mph (72km/h) operation. GSM-R radio fixed equipment would need to be provided to permit drivers to communicate with Control.
He adds that there is a continent-wide shortage of overhead line engineers, but the trams could be fitted with third-rail collector shoes; this eliminates issues with overhead line equipment in Ryde tunnel. He does not mention the latest battery or supercapacitor technology, but as much of this can be retrofitted (with relative ease claim the makers of such equipment) this could be another solution. His view is that the Class 483 trains could be kept running indefinitely, with appropriate maintenance and refurbishment. Incidentally the Class 483 is not compliant with the UK’s Rail Vehicle Accessibility Regulations (RVAR 2010), but any stock used will have to be by 1 January 2020.
His view that the SWT franchisee would not want to run a tramway is not borne out by Stagecoach operation of the Supertram in South Yorkshire. However an upgrade to island management would be necessary, increasing costs. On the basis of experience in 1996-2007, the standalone organisational model is unlikely to be sustainable. There are just two bidders for the SWT franchise, Stagecoach and First Group, and the latter has let it be known that it is not interested in Island Line! What it will do if DfT includes it in the franchise specification is unclear.
KILF, supported by local people, user groups and the Isle of Wight Council, is clear that the priority is to get Island Line included in the 2017 franchise, hopefully with a requirement on the franchisee to improve the rolling stock and infrastructure. The question of a tramway conversion could come later. A significant sum will then be required for capital expenditure, and of course we would like a small fleet of tram-trains, perhaps of the type currently being delivered for the Sheffield – Rotherham ‘pilot’ scheme, to carry us in comfort, rather than today’s rattling and jolting ride.