Minister thinks 'assumptions' have been made about future options

“The Infrastructure Minister says organisations he's spoken with 'absolutely welcome' a review of the Island's heritage railways.

Chris Thomas took questions in Tynwald this week on a review and future operating models of heritage networks.

One of the options being considered on running the railways in future is through a charitable trust at arms-length from government.

Mr Thomas believes assumptions have been made that doing that is about replacing paid workers with volunteers.”

Manx Radio

An extract from the Tynwald Hansard covering the question tabled by Daphne Caine - MHK for Garff is reproduced as follows:

Question 18: Heritage railways review
Operating models; scope of review and who is undertaking

The Hon. Member for Garff, Mrs Caine, to ask the Minister for Infrastructure:

What future operating models his Department is considering for the heritage railways; what the scope

The President: We shall resume at Question 18 and I call on the Hon. Member for Garff,

Mrs Caine: Thank you, Mr President; and another note, just to declare an interest for the record, that I am the current Chair of the Douglas Bay Tramway Heritage Trust, the horse tram charity.

I would like to ask the Minister for Infrastructure what future operating models his Department is considering for the heritage railways; what the scope of the current review is; who is undertaking the review; and if he will make a statement?

The President: I call on Shirveishagh Bun-troggalys, Minister for Infrastructure, to reply.

The Minister for Infrastructure (Mr Thomas): Thank you, Mr President, and I thank the questioner for the Question.

As I, and indeed the Chief Minister, have said before, the railways will be subject to a review and a number of delivery options will be explored, including, but not at all limited to, an arm’s-length charitable trust. I reaffirm my previous commitment to update this Hon. Court in April 2023 and I look forward to being advised through questions or some of the existing Members’ thoughts.

The President: Supplementary, Mrs Caine.

Mrs Caine: Thank you, Mr President.

I wonder could the Minister give us any more detail on the recent procurement exercise his Department undertook to appoint a particular company or consultant to undertake the review into heritage; and what aspects of railways that will cover?

Also, in terms of going out to a charitable organisation to look after the railways, is the Minister aware that in the recent SAVE undertaking five years ago, SYSTRA reported and concluded: ‘It is recognised that the replacement of frontline operational engineering staff by volunteer labour is unsustainable’? And the conclusion of that consultant’s report was to retain the heritage railways operation in a public sector environment!

The President: Minister to reply.

The Minister: Thank you, Mr President.In fact, it was the Minister for Enterprise who gave the answer to which the Hon. Member refers, and my understanding is the terms of reference for any review that is undertaken and the budget for any review that is undertaken, if it comes from the Department of Infrastructure, is still under question and still being established. I think the Minister was asked about Manx National Heritage and DoI, and the situation is clearer for Manx National Heritage than it is for the Department of Infrastructure.

In terms of the second point, we are fully aware of the of the SYSTRA report, and the previous one from Ecorys and all of the conclusions, but more importantly the data and the analysis inside the previous reviews are within the scope of the review once its terms of reference are finalised.

The President: Supplementary, Mrs Caine.

Mrs Caine: Thank you, Mr President.I did allude to the Written Answer that was provided by the Enterprise Minister, because in it he said, ‘work to undertake a heritage economic impact assessment on behalf of Manx National Heritage and the Department of Infrastructure, for their respective heritage roles,’ is the subject of the contract, intended that work be completed by the end of February.

So has the Minister or the Department had any input into what the scope will be for his heritage assets which, under the Department of Infrastructure, I think might be limited to heritage railways, unless he has any others that are also part of that scope?

The President: Minister to reply.

The Minister: Thank you. I do apologise for any communication that was perhaps premature. The status is that the Department of Infrastructure has not got a budget to pay for that investigation. It might have in the future; and also the terms of reference will need to be specified.

I always think, before asking questions, it is pretty important to establish what the questions are that need to be answered; and I also think it is quite important to actually have the data accurate. So, in other words, the most important thing for me at the moment is understanding the actual costs and the actual revenues for heritage transport, before we can begin to even identify what questions need to be considered in that review.

Very pleased to work with the Department for Enterprise and everything, and we will be at the right time conceivably taking forward that early stages of expressions of interest call, but more importantly at this stage, we are still scoping the review and have had some good conversations in that place. This review has not got the status of a project and I will be making a statement in this Hon. Court, as myself and the Chief Minister have advised, in April.

The President: Supplementary Loayreyder.

The Speaker: Thank you. I think I will rise to the Minister’s challenge of trying to find a question that needs to be answered, then. What is the Minister’s ambition for this review? Why is it needed? Is it that the quality of service is inadequate? Is it to try and achieve savings? And if it is to try and achieve savings, then the largest cost of course will be labour. So, does he believe that it is either overstaffed or overpaid? I would like to know where the Minister thinks the problem lies and why this is required in the first place.

The President: Minister to reply.

The Minister: Thank you, Mr President. I look forward very much to further specifying questions with people like the Isle of Man’s Steam Supporters’ Association from down south, or up south. But in the very clear staff email that was sent to members of staff, valuable public servants concerned, the Minister just floated two questions initially. One of those was can heritage rail ever be commuter transport, and the second one was would there be any merits in changing the status of the organisation of public support for heritage railways.

I think it is widely known that I am a big supporter of heritage railways. Mr Speaker has made some assumptions about the sorts of questions that are being asked; and the quality of the service could be anything from how often trains run and what time of the year they run. In terms of engineering needing to be done by professional engineers, who could disagree? There are all sorts of questions, practical questions that are part of this review, potentially. But at this stage we are very much at an early stage and as part of reviewing how we optimise the delivery of public transport, of buses, we need to think through how we organise fleet services and how we organise heritage transport.

We have got huge capital expenditure that has been incurred in the past, valuably, for visitors, apparently, and we need to investigate all of these issues from the point of view of taxpayers, residents, visitors and everybody who, like me, appreciate the heritage railway.

The President: Supplementary, Mr Ashford.

Mr Ashford: Thank you, Mr President. As the Minister says, it is early days, Mr President, but can I ask have there been any discussions with voluntary or charitable organisations to date in relation to the idea of a charitable trust model, and the practicalities, or indeed the impracticalities, around that? Have any discussions taken place to date?

The President: Minister to reply.

The Minister: Officers have talked with Manx National Heritage officers and have begun a report, and invitations have been issued and accepted to talk with the Isle of Man Steam Supporters’ Association and the Groudle Glen Railway. I use this as an opportunity to welcome other discussion individually or collectively.

What the bodies I have spoken to already have said, firstly, was they absolutely welcome this review, because they know it needs to be done fairly and come up with objective conclusions. Nobody as yet has said it is not right to look at this question.

The second thing that they have said is the assumption that has been made that this is all about replacing paid people with volunteers. That is just an assumption. Assumptions can tend to make asses of you and me, and let’s not make any assumptions about this review before it even gets under way with specified terms of reference and it gets made into a project.

For instance, Culture Vannin has the status of a foundation and since we began to appreciate that we have been much better endowed in terms of getting very generous legacies because of the fact that the foundation is separated from Government, that is something that can be explored.

I had a very useful dialogue with a member of the trade union Unite, who is passionate about heritage railways, and I think we agree we are doing exactly the right thing. It is always difficult keeping your heritage, and any investigation about how to do that is worthwhile and never can be a wasted use of intellect and time.

The President: Supplementary, Mrs Caine.

Mrs Caine: Thank you, Mr President. I am slightly concerned that the Minister says he does not yet have the scope of this review, when the procurement portal and bids closed on 17th October, and if they are to have completed the contract by the end of February, that is under three months remaining, and yet he does not seem to know what is in scope.

I think that seeing it is 10 years since Ecorys previously undertook an economic valuation of the railways and concluded, from memory, that the economic value of the heritage railways was then £11 million contribution to GDP, whereas there has been a significant increase now in the number of travelling passengers on all the various heritage railways. So, will it only be confined, can the Minister say, to the economic benefits as well as the alternative methods of running? Or is there any consideration of the intrinsic value of our heritage being preserved for future generations?

Again, the Minister said he was a big supporter, but can I ask him: does he truly value heritage railways and is he going to be the one to fight to preserve them on behalf of the Isle of Man’s people?

The President: Minister to reply.

The Minister: Thank you, Mr President. Perhaps I have been beating around the bush too much, but the first I learnt about this DoI involvement in this review was when I read the Answer that the Minister for Enterprise gave in his Question. I do not want us to set hares, this is a very early stage call for expressions of interest, and it now turns out that there was a smaller DoI involvement, but we have not got the budget and the terms of reference. So if there is any contractor out there waiting to deliver this before March, they are not going to be satisfied.

You do not go off and do an economic impact assessment before you have a good understanding of the costs and the revenues, but also all of the benefits – economic, social, heritage, visitor – and all the questions that you want to ask. We made progress in gas regulation because Minister Hooper and myself specified four questions that were absolutely paramount and needed to be answered, and the rest is history. Okay, I was a bit more involved than Mr Hooper, but heigh-ho … You have to have the right questions that need answering before you come to spend money on a review. Just generalised research with data that has not been verified is not the way forward.

I am a champion of heritage railway. I am a member of a great many heritage organisations. The heritage railways will be starting next year in line with the time they started this year, around the beginning of March. But just to put some evidence on the table, the reality is that the travelling public in 2022 across the board was less than it was in 2019.

So in terms of the Steam Railway, there were 124,437 passengers, as opposed to 128,000. The Manx Electric Railway, 132,000 as opposed to 136,000. The Snaefell Mountain Railway – the exception – 55,562 as opposed to 49,852. Obviously the Douglas Bay Horse Tramways are a special case, given that they started late in the season after myself and others – the officers, the volunteers – had made a superhuman effort to reopen the horse tramway midseason at the end of July.

The President: Supplementary, Loayreyder.

The Speaker: Gura mie eu.

I would just like to come back to the question that I asked earlier in terms of what is the policy objective that the Minister is trying to achieve here. In terms of the grand scheme of the challenges facing the DoI at present, where is this in his scheme of priorities?

The President: Minister to reply.

The Minister: Thank you. Working out why the buses only started to run on time again about six weeks ago is an absolute priority for the Department of Infrastructure. (Interjection by Mr Speaker) How buses operate is wound up in terms of how heritage rail is operated, and that was the initial stimulus for the need to review the Public Transport Division.

Heritage railways is a large recipient of public funds. Bridges on which the heritage railways run are not paid for inside that Division, they are paid for inside the Highways Division. As you can tell from today’s discussion, maintenance, maintenance, maintenance of roads is wrapped up with all the money that the Highways Division spends, and part of that is on maintaining the infrastructure for the highways.

How people work in terms of Public Transport Division is all mixed up, because a lot of people tend to be part-time bus drivers who do other jobs as well. A lot of people tend to be combining engineering skills, as has been hinted at in one of the previous questions, across different Departments.

So all that is on the table and the objective is to make sure our heritage rail is in a good place and secured for future generations, like we had the privilege to receive it from past generations, to make sure we handle fleet services properly and we make sure we have a public transport bus service that is working for everybody, given that the public purse is spent on that as well. Money is not plentiful. I just wanted to remind people.

The President: Final supplementary, Mrs Caine.

Mrs Caine: Thank you, Mr President. The Minister quoted figures there and said that they had not matched, this year, 2019. Could he confirm that in fact 2019 was the record highest figures of travelling that happened pre-COVID and actually the figures this year sound like they have recovered pretty well despite the disruption?

There is a significant anniversary of steam next year. So can he confirm the operating timetable, the amount of the year that the heritage railways will be operating; the times they are operating; that there will be no impact to that while a review is under way for as yet unspecified remits that the Minister is not aware of? Again, I am finding that very concerning.

So would he be able to circulate to Hon. Members the terms of that review once it is confirmed, and the company undertaking it, what it extends to? And can he give an assurance that the operation of the heritage railways next year will not be in doubt?

Just a final one: as a representative of a heritage organisation, I do not remember or recall having an invitation to meet with the Minister as yet, but I would very much welcome that. Thank you, Mr President.

The President: Minister to reply.

The Minister: Thank you. Just to deal with the last point, always welcome to meet with the Member, and I have issued publicly invitations, and I wanted to see in part who had come forward. Off-Island organisations have come forward, trade unions have come forward and most other significant heritage rail people have come forward. Sometimes it is even quite hard to establish exactly where the volunteers are working through at the moment, so I wanted to issue a general invitation so it was fair to all. In terms of 2019, there is no foul play in choosing that data. I just asked to have some data and I decided to ask for 2019 as being the one that was not affected by COVID. I will now investigate whether there is any difference between the figures in 2019 and in previous years, because that will be an important part of the review.

The current work: I absolutely commit and undertake to circulate the terms of reference – any terms of reference once agreed – if the generalised review becomes a more specific review and then becomes a project with an implementation plan and a budget. Also at this stage I welcome any Tynwald Member’s comment.

The current working scope of the review – in other words, the pencilled-in version to pin a Minister down and to begin to structure it, and so on – is to establish without prejudice the value of heritage railways to the Island in terms of the economy and tourism, and also to review where it is positioned within the Department of Infrastructure and the wider Isle of Man Government.


Powered by Quesmedia Sites