Getting railways back on track

Feb 6 2009 Liverpool Daily Post

LONG abandoned rail lines around Merseyside could finally be reopened after the government threw campaigners a surprise lifeline yesterday.

Ministers announced a ringfenced fund to allow local authorities to run new rail services by reinstating mothballed lines, building new stations or switching freight lines to passenger travel.

The scheme ? which follows years of criticism the current rules make it virtually impossible to reopen lines ? offers fresh hope to stalled projects, such as:

The Burscough Curves ? a ?2.5m scheme to revive the disused track between Ormskirk and Burscough, shut down in the 1960s;

The Halton Curve ? from Chester to John Lennon Airport, which closed in the early 1990s. Merseytravel believes 1m passengers would use it.

Under the scheme, town halls or passenger transport authorities seeking the go-ahead for new rail services would no longer have to prove they will attract sufficient passengers long into the future.

Instead, they would only have to prove financial viability for three years ? after which the new service would be taken into a wider franchise agreement, requiring it to be run.

In an interview with the Daily Post, Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon said: ?There are lots of campaigns around the country for new rail services.

?But the usual problem local authorities face is they have difficulty guaranteeing the revenue to make it financially viable.

?This change is a good offer, because it is a slightly bizarre exercise to discuss what might, or might not, be happening in 2020 and to make forecasts about likely revenue.?

However, the scheme will not get under way until 2014 which, given the latest polls, is likely to be long after the current government has left office.

Furthermore, Mr Hoon gave no indication about the size of the fund, which is likely to be flooded with applications after the long period of failure to reopen lines.

TRANSPORT companies were given the all-clear to make huge dividend payments to shareholders ? even as rail passengers face inflation-busting fare hikes.

Mr Hoon dismissed claims that increases in dividend payments of up to 33% last year amounted to ?profiteering? on the backs of long-suffering passengers.

The RMT union has released research suggesting Arriva, which runs most bus services in Merseyside, posted a 10% dividend increase in 2008.

Even that rise was dwarfed by the payments made by the other big four transport groups ? National Express, First Group, Go-Ahead and Stagecoach ? which reached 33%.

At the same time, the rail fares have risen by up to 7.4%