Stuart George, chairman of the IW Bus & Rail Users’ Group and a Railfuture member living on the Isle of Wight, reviews the report by Christopher Garnett on the future of the Island Line.
The report produced by Christopher Garnett, at one time Chief Executive of GNER, for the Isle of Wight Council discusses options for the future of Island Line and was produced in response to the ongoing DfT consultation on the south-west franchise, which singles out Island Line for special consideration, asking the questions “What factors do you consider should be taken into account in assessment of options for the Island Line?” and “Do you have any innovative proposals for how the Island Line might operate on a more self-sustaining basis?”. It is a concern is that the proposals in the Garnett report could be extended nationally for many loss-making branch lines.
The DfT stated at the consultation event held in December in Ryde, and which was attended by about a hundred people, that there is no intention to close Island Line, which is backed up by the report, and it's notable that the equivalent bus service running between Ryde and Shanklin takes over twice as long as the train.
It dismisses the retention of a “heavy rail” system in the first two paragraphs of the executive summary, citing the age of the current rolling stock (77 years) and the state of the track but admitting there is a lack of detailed knowledge about both of these, and then goes on to conclude that the preferred option is for conversion to a tramway, although again admitting that further work would need to be undertaken to ensure that trams could operate throughout the line, especially through Ryde tunnel. The reasons given for the preference for trams are that operating costs would be cheaper and the line would be “future-proof”, i.e. it wouldn't be reliant on rolling stock of limited gauge becoming available, although no actual cost analysis is included in the report. Neither does it give any estimate about plugging the gap between revenue and costs as required by the DfT, although it accepts that the line is socially important, citing road congestion and poor air quality, particularly in the summer months. It does however suggest that a single line tram operation could work on “line of sight”, clearly not possible except with greatly reduced speeds, and unlikely to be allowed by the authorities, although a tramway would offer the possibility of a 15 min frequency during the peaks. Finally, an independent response to the Garnett proposals claims that the maximum “track twist” allowable for trams is less than that allowed for heavy rail, due to the risk of derailment, and therefore the track would need to be maintained to a higher standard, thereby increasing costs.
Paragraph 5 of the summary mentions the Isle of Wight Steam Railway (IWSR), suggesting they would be “given” the released up line between Smallbrook Jn and Ryde St.John's Road (and presumably the ability to run-round in St.John's Road station) in return for which they would be required to construct the passing loop between Brading and Smallbrook Jn, allowing a regular 30 min interval service. This gift of the up line would definitely not be in the best interests of Island Line, which would lose any ability to wait for late-running ferries (a not infrequent occurrence in rough weather). It's interesting that the IWSR should even be involved in this report, as the Island's Quality Transport Partnership (a body bringing together all the Island's transport operators and users, but excluding the IWSR which, the steam railway admits, is a tourist attraction rather than a serious transport link) is on record as saying that the best interests of Island Line should come first and, if the IWSR can be accommodated once that has been achieved, then so much the better.
One good aspect of the report is that it states Island Line must remain part of the National Rail network for the purposes of through ticketing, revenue allocation, and information.
One of the advantages of a tram system mentioned is that, with “heavy rail”, it would be difficult to expand the network, but with a tram system expansion would be possible. However, it's hard to see how such expansion might be financed.
The report then says that there is no clear logical argument for Island Line being included in the south-west franchise, being more accountable to a local operator and likely to receive better promotion, but that it should be subject to the normal protection in the event of failure of the operator. There has been considerable opposition on the Island to this idea that there might be a separate franchise for the Island, believing it to have a more secure future were it to be part of a larger franchise and where costs would be less significant. A cross-party organisation called KILF (Keep Island Line in the Franchise) was set up last summer to fight for this aim. The basic question being asked by this group is “Why should the railway on the Isle of Wight be treated differently from those on the mainland?” An e-petition has been created and can be accessed at https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/117990
The Future of Island Line - Options Report by Christopher Garnett (use Adobe Reader to open it)
A Technical Response to the Report “The Future of Island Line – Options Report” by Mark Brinton MIET