Anger at 30 per cent cut to direct rail link
The Government is considering slashing direct rail services between Cornwall and London by one-third, it emerged last night.
There is anger ministers are looking to cut London Paddington to Penzance trains from nine to six each day under the new Great Western franchise agreement.
Details were revealed as it was confirmed the far South West will not get a penny from £9.4 billion lavished on the railways, announced by the Government yesterday.
Fears were heightened after Transport Secretary Justine Greening did not rule out cuts to the Penzance service when questioned in the Commons.
Conservative leader of Cornwall Council, Alec Robertson, said: "This would be a serious setback for Cornwall's economy. Reducing the number of inter-city services will mean a third-class rail system in Cornwall and we need to fight to ensure that this does not happen."
Liberal Democrat MP for St Ives Andrew George has secured an emergency meeting with Transport Minister Theresa Villiers today.
He said: "With seriously overcrowded trains, over-inflation ticket increases and other service cuts, the Government should be enhancing the Penzance to Paddington service rather than cutting it."
The Government will shortly invite four short-listed firms to bid to run trains on the Great Western line based on a specification drawn up by the Department for Transport (DfT). The new operator will take charge of services throughout the south of England and Wales, for 15 years, from April.
But officials at Cornwall Council have been told by DfT civil servants they can expect to lose three daily inter-city services to the capital.
It could also mean a loss of services in Devon if the links are axed entirely and not just halted at Exeter or Plymouth, for example.
During months of talks, the local authority asked for a 30-minute service between Penzance and Exeter to be included in the franchise specification. At present, the service has a gap of up to one-and-half hours.
The council was willing to sacrifice direct links to the capital in return for the regular half-hourly service to the east of Devon. The move would have increased the number of trains stopping at stations en route and also allow London commuters to change at Exeter and Plymouth more frequently.
DfT officials have rejected the swap. But they do want to take advantage of scaling back the inter-city services to Cornwall to make the franchise more financially attractive.
Services in the rural Westcountry are vulnerable compared to more profitable Great Western commuter trains in the Home Counties. The deal works by firms paying the Government to run the franchise and pocketing fares in return.
Cornwall's hopes now rest on an eleventh hour U-turn from the minister.
In the Commons chamber yesterday, Mr George questioned Ms Greening about whether investment elsewhere in the country was "built on the back of cuts to the service to Penzance". The minister responded: "No final decisions have been made."
Many are particularly angry as Ms Villiers told MPs in the Commons in December that whoever took over the franchise would be expected to provide at least what train firm First Great Western does at the moment. "Our starting point in setting the specification for the franchise will be the current level of service," the minister said.
Details of a possible reduced Cornish service came after the Government announced a £9.4 billion package of rail projects.
Amid claims by David Cameron that it represented the "biggest modernisation of our railways since the Victorian era", plans include the electrification of the Midland Main Line.
On the Great Western line, electric rail will be taken beyond Cardiff to Swansea, and the Welsh Valley lines will also be electrified.
But the far South West will get nothing and will hope to be handed down second-hand trains to replace ageing diesels the region relies on.
A new £500 million rail link between the Great Western line at Slough, Berkshire, and Heathrow – confirmed yesterday – will reduce journey times between the region and the airport. But critics say this is scant consolation.
Labour MP for Exeter Ben Bradshaw said: "The Government seems to think the Westcountry ends at Bristol.
"We desperately need electrification of the main line down to Exeter and the further South West if we're not to miss out on the benefits of modernising our railways will bring."
Lib Dem peer and Cornwall councillor Lord Robin Teverson, who first raised the alarm on proposed rail cuts, described yesterday's rail investment announcement as an "insult to Cornwall".
He said: "Cornwall has invested more in its own rail network than any other local authority. Our reward? A reduction in the quality of services under the next franchise.
"South Wales now has its electrification plans all the way to Swansea. We only get as far as Reading – some 200 miles short of the Tamar."
Chris Pomfret, chairman of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership, set up by the Government to create jobs in the region, said: "A reduced rail service will be seen as a body blow to growth for a region that has the lowest income per head in England."