The light thing to do
On 28 November 2014, the government confirmed £16 million funding to electrify the Windermere branch line in Cumbria. Baroness Kramer (Liberal Democrat) said: “Electrifying this key rail link will support the vital tourism industry in the area, and help us build a stronger economy in the Lake District and beyond”.
But is there an actual economic case for the electrification? If there is, it is yet to see the light of day. In 2011, the McNulty Rail Value for Money Study, which looked into the efficiency of GB national railways, mentioned Windermere ‘upgrading’ trackwork as an example of muddled investment thinking.
[Realising the Potential of GB Rail, May 2011]
The Windermere branch line is a 10-mile branch line in the Lake District. It is regarded as typical of many rural and secondary lines which have seen significant investment and a rapid change in the method of operation, but where the rationale for the investment is unclear, although this could have a long-term impact on the financial performance of the line.
Following privatisation there has been a series of investments in new rolling stock. These have increased passenger train weights progressively from 48.5 tonnes (two car) to 163.0 tonnes (three car) today, although demand rarely requires more than a single car. The new trains are so heavy that they have apparently been causing significant track damage, so much so that NR deemed it necessary to rebuild the entire branch line to a much higher standard. The Study estimates that the additional track renewal costs could be up to £5 million. There are a number of similar examples across the network.
What is the cost of maintaining the Windermere branch to Network Rail standards, and maintaining its future overhead line equipment? Absolutely no information is available.
What would be the cost savings if the branch was turned into a light railway, under some kind of local control? A lightweight railbus, perhaps running on natural gas, would allow big savings on track maintenance.
Most likely, it would be much cheaper for government to subsidise a light railway than a Network Rail branch. Similar conversion might also be appropriate for other lines, such as Ryde to Shanklin, Craven Arms to Llanelli, Inverness to Aberdeen, etc.