UK’s regional light rail services at risk

Crucial publicly owned transport services could face the axe because of lost revenues due to passengers staying away, cities around England have warned, as Metro light rail systems losing tens of millions of pounds a month are not covered by the Treasurys support for bus and rail operators during the coronavirus lockdown.

While private rail franchises have been replaced by guaranteed income, and bus operators revenue topped up, the government has yet to bail out major urban networks including Manchesters Metrolink, the Tyne and Wear Metro and Liverpools Merseyrail, as well as the London Underground.

Cities and regional transport authorities have kept services running for key workers including medical staff, while encouraging other passengers to stay away, meaning huge falls in fare revenue.

Mayors have pressed the Department for Transport for assistance but no scheme has been agreed after weeks of talks. The mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, said transport authorities and operator Keolis were having to “make tough choices to reduce costs” on Metrolink.

He added: “While Metrolink has a proud history of operating without financial subsidy, the current crisis means that is no longer a viable or sustainable option. The government has already stepped in to bail out bus and train operators, so it is only right that a similar package is offered to light rail networks.”

Jamie Driscoll, mayor of the North of Tyne combined authority, warned that the Tyne and Wear Metro needed emergency funding of £10m by July. “Ridership is down 95%, and we are losing £900,000 a week compared to the normal baseline. It is the foundation of the urban economy and essential for key workers to get to work. If we cant operate our light rail systems, there is going to be no realistic prospect of an economic recovery.

“We just want it to be treated the same as [national] rail and the bus system. Why is it that the publicly owned light rail systems are being left out?”

The Midland Metro light rail service is losing around £1m a month during the crisis. Laura Shoaf, managing director of Transport for West Midlands, which owns and operates the service, said: “Were trying to run a temporary network that is clean and safe and has enough capacity so people can be on it socially isolated – roughly 40 people on a [210-capacity] tram – and to make travel free where possible.

“We want to do the right thing, but without any revenue all transport authorities are going to need assistance. Otherwise, we cant afford to run it and I would have to mothball the tram. It is taking a lot of key workers to hospitals and it would be a huge problem.”

Sheffields Supertram, operated by Stagecoach, could also be at risk without support.

A Liverpool city region combined authority spokesperson said that it was “in dialogue with the DfT about exploring potential support” for the publicly owned and operated Merseyrail.

Revenue losses at Transport for London, particularly on the Underground, have far outstripped that of other cities public transport services, but TfL is understood to be more confident of securing additional funding. Simon Kilonback, chief finance officer, said TfL was “facing a substantial reduction in income” from having cut passenger numbers to stop the spread of coronavirus but was “working closely with the government and is in constructive discussions over the support that can be made available”.

A DfT spokesperson said: “We are aware of the challenges faced by light rail operators and continue to work closely with the sector and local authorities on the best solution for passengers.”

The government suspended rail franchise agreements in March to avoid train companies collapsing, taking on revenue and cost risk and paying operators to continue running services. A £400m package of relief for buses, including topping up fare income to normal levels, was announced at the start of April.