‘Infrastructure Minister dismisses calls to cut service to one track’

“Reducing the Manx Electric Railway to a single track operation would cut the service by two-thirds without reducing operating costs.

That's according to the Infrastructure Minister, who was asked whether one track could be converted into a walking and cycling lane at this week's sitting of the House of Keys.

Ray Harmer dismissed the suggestion, stating the cost implications would be too great.

However, he confirmed there are plans to repurpose a former railway line for active travel.”

Click HERE to listen to the audio clip.

An extract from the House of Keys hansard is reproduced below:

HOUSE of KEYS - Tues, 22nd October 2019

1.4. Manx Electric Railway – Changing to single track operation

The Hon. Member for Middle (Mr Shimmins) to ask the Minister for Infrastructure: What consideration he has given to changing the Manx Electric Railway to single track operation and reusing the space occupied by one track to create a safer walking and cycle route between Douglas and Ramsey?

The Speaker: Question 4 and I call on the Hon. Member for Middle, Mr Shimmins.

Mr Shimmins: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I would like to ask the Minister for Infrastructure what consideration he has given to changing the Manx Electric Railway to single track operation and reusing the space occupied by one track to create a safer walking and cycle route between Douglas and Ramsey?

The Speaker: I call on the Minister for Infrastructure to reply.

The Minister for Infrastructure (Mr Harmer): Thank you, Mr Speaker. This route is not being considered as a potential walking or cycling route. Single-line working would reduce the operational service to approximately 33% of its current timetable. This would adversely affect income. There would be a significant capital cost addressing re-signalling, removing the line and making any necessary safety provision without any significant reduction in operational costs. A draft business case has been prepared and submitted to Treasury for the works to upgrade the old railway line between St John’s and Michael. This is hoped to be the start of linking Douglas and Peel with Ramsey.

The Speaker: Supplementary question, Mr Shimmins.

Mr Shimmins: Thank you, Mr Speaker; and I am grateful for the Minister’s response.I understand that there will be a cost of reconfiguring the Manx Electric Railway. Currently his Department spends around £1 million of taxpayers’ money each year on maintainingthe 17 miles of double track, which is effectively 34 miles of rails. What cost savings could be achieved in the long term by running the Manx Electric Railway on a single-track basis which is similar to how the Steam Railway operates?

The Speaker: Minister to reply.

The Minister: I think there are many other issues in terms of capital costs, for example, to change from existing operational systems of the 1890s to meet modern safety standards of a single track railway, i.e. an upgrade to signalling systems would cost many millions of pounds. And, for example, not all the land occupied by the MER is Government owned – some of the land on the tramway is built subject to long leases and would revert back to the landowner. What I am trying to say is, there is a lot of complexity with running a historic tramway as opposed to a modern light railway; and all of the signalling and all of the track changes and the other associated hardware costs and infrastructure would cost, as I say, many millions of pounds.

The Speaker: Supplementary question, Dr Allinson.

Dr Allinson: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I would like to thank the Minister for his statement about the use of the old railway tracks and obviously using that in terms of cycle routes is an intrinsic part of the Active Travel Strategy. The Hon. Member for Middle circulated a paper, I believe, in terms of metros and one of the things that struck me from that was the statement that a high level of separation is a prerequisite for the successful operation of a tram or train system.Would he agree that in terms of using the existing MER track there are some safety considerations there in terms of both the electrical power input, but also the operation of the trams themselves?Thank you.

The Speaker: Minister to reply.

The Minister: Thank you. I completely agree with that. I think also that the space in between tracks, the signalling and the crossing points there is a huge amount of infrastructure. As I say, the MER is a historic train and its braking distances are very long. All of those considerations and a number of things that have happened that were noteworthy in the press, all indicate this would be a massive undertaking and also have very deep safety concerns, as the Member has just highlighted.

The Speaker: Supplementary question, Mrs Caine.

Mrs Caine: Thank you, Mr Speaker. Could I ask the Minister, for the sake of clarity could he confirm that the possibility of closing one track of railway on the MER line for a walking and cycle route is completely ruled out by the Department at this time?And also if he can clarify what investment the Department has put into that length of railway line over recent years? Thank you.

The Speaker: Minister to reply.

The Minister: Thank you. We are not looking at it at the moment, we are looking at so many other things to do with cycling and walking and active travel; and I think linking up St John’s to Ramsey would be absolutely fantastic as well. There are hundreds of miles of footpaths that we need to maintain and so forth, and then there is another question on green lanes. There is so much that we need to be doing to encourage people to cycle more. This really in my view is not the appropriate one. In terms of capital investment I can come back with detail but what we do is we have a fixed capital budget for Heritage Railways that we then use across the network. So it is not just the MER, it is also the Steam Railway.

The Speaker: Supplementary question, Mr Shimmins.

Mr Shimmins: Thank you, Mr Speaker; and I am grateful for the Minister’s response.Clearly, safety needs to be our priority. Would the Minister agree that many people are concerned about the safety of vulnerable road users, and that segregated routes which could be established on the Manx Electric Railway are safer and encourage more people to participate in active travel, which is proven to deliver considerable health and environmental benefits?

The Speaker: Minister to reply.

The Minister: I am a massive advocate of active travel and those routes, and we know we are going to concentrate on the two and a half miles around the Douglas area and schools and so forth. There are other opportunities for segregated routes, and this is not one of them. I think the Member from Ramsey highlighted a number of safety issues and the capital outlay would be absolutely immense.

The Speaker: Supplementary question, Mr Baker.

Mr Baker: Thank you, Mr Speaker.Would the Minister agree with me that if we are going to have segregated routes, completely segregated routes will be far better than something which is only partially segregated as the hon. questioner has suggested?A completely segregated route, such as reinstating the old railway line from St John’s via Kirk Michael up to Ramsey, potentially (A Member: Hear, hear.) would also be far cheaper to implement than a major reconstruction of the Manx Electric Railway proposition, and would avoid destroying something which is intrinsic to the tourist appeal of the Isle of Man.

Two Members: Hear, hear.

The Speaker: Now, before I call on the Minister to reply, the Question is about reusing the space between Douglas and Ramsey not about potential other alternatives for the same amount of money.But with that in mind, I call on the Minister to reply.

The Minister: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I suppose, though, in some ways about making the best use of money is really important and I think we can celebrate the fact that this House and the other place have supported a new route, a new bridle path, the first one on the Isle of Man all the way through from Douglas to Peel. And subsequently we hope to be able to do St John’s all the way to Ramsey. But putting space for the single track in terms of Douglas to Ramsey, the problem with that is that it is not safe; and the cost of doing it. I would not imagine anybody walking along those tracks at the moment. It would only be a partial segregation, which the Member has highlighted, and it would also at one stroke remove quite a bit of our historical tourist trade.

The Speaker: Final supplementary, Mr Shimmins.

Mr Shimmins: Thank you, Mr Speaker. Let me just assure Hon. Members this is certainly not about destroying the Manx Electric Railway, it potentially puts it on a much more sustainable basis for the future. Is the Minister aware that active tourism has expanded exponentially across Europe and is now one of the fastest growing sectors in tourism? Would he agree that more segregated walking and cycling routes would help the Island attract more visitors; and that other islands such as Tenerife and Menorca now receive several hundred thousand tourists every year, growing their economy?Does he feel that his Department has a key role in providing safer routes to help the Island unlock this exciting economic opportunity?

The Speaker: Notwithstanding the Hon. Member’s excitement, the Question is about safer walking and cycling routes between Douglas and Ramsey.Within that context, Minister to reply.

The Minister: Thank you. I am always keen to work with the Hon. Member and other Members in promoting safer and better routes for cycling and walking, and this is something I am massively passionate about.


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