SYSTRA Isle of Man Railway report recommendations released

Its been long awaited and finally the report into the future of Isle of Man Railways (including the Steam Railway, Manx Electric Railway, Snaefell Mountain Railway and Douglas Bay Horse Tramway), which was originally expected in September 2023 is nearly here. Although we still don’t have a full report we do now have a summary report which includes a number of recommendations and fortunately it doesn’t appear to have anything too drastic in it with some of the more controversial suggestions made at the time the report was commissioned being rejected.

The big fear of many when the report was commissioned was that with costs increasing the desired outcome may result in recommendations to close lines but this has, thankfully, not been the case. The section of currently open line that was probably most precarious is the northern section of the MER between Laxey and Ramsey with consultants SYSTRA taking a particular look at this in their review.

From the report is appears that if they were just looking at this section in complete isolation of everything else going on around it then it would be be in danger of closing but SYSTRA do say that this idea doesn’t consider any analysis of visitor spending which means on the balance they would not recommend its closure.

On this point one of the recommendations says: “Our review of the impact of truncating parts of the network has shown that there is no case for the withdrawal of services between Castletown and Pot Erin; it has been shown that new disbenefits would be generated from the loss of the service while the cost savings were relatively small. Whilst on Laxey – Ramsey although it was shown that there would be a small benefit from withdrawing services this excluded the impact on visitor spending. Despite assuming active travel provision replacing the service would retain some of the visitors it is assumed the demand for cycle trips is lower than that for train travel and therefore the impact on visitor spending would be negative. As this section is the most scenic part of the MER it

would be expected that withdrawal of the route to Ramsey would result in a fall in visitor numbers to the Island and reduction in visitor spend. If a strategy of immediate reduction in subvention is sought, this truncation would offer significant cost savings. However, if a long term strategy of more closely aligning the railway with the visitor economy was decided on this could be undermined by closure of a substantial portion of easily-maintainable good quality track.”

Part of the brief of the report was that SYSTRA were asked to consider alternative options for development and for a case study they examined whether converting Laxey-Ramsey to single track operation with passing loops to provide space for a parallel cycle track was feasible. But they concluded that it would only be value for money if there were more than an average of 475 cycle trips per day and do not consider this to be feasible.

They also looked at possible commuter services with a Ramsey-Douglas service considered which would see two morning and two evening services on the MER using a new electric train with additional points at Derby Castle to allow the service to run closer to the centre of Douglas on the horse tramway tracks. There would be a need for 88 passengers per service to return a positive value for money, described as “an ambitious but plausible number of passengers.”

Away from the MER and onto the Douglas Bay Horse Tramway and the old favourite saga of just where the service should run to and it’s a bit of good and bad news. Whilst the modelling work of SYSTRA shows that the financial case for the reinstatement of services to either the War Memorial or Sea Terminal would need a very large increase in passenger numbers there is “clearly a strategic case for reinstatement to the Sea Terminal”.

Other non-tram specific recommendations in the report include:

  • A strategy should be produced for the railways over the period to 2040
  • There should be better engagement with tourist organisations
  • There needs to be better digital marketing in place. The website of Isle of Man Heritage Railways is described as basic and compares poorly to the websites of many other heritage railways.
  • The price of Go Explore tickets should be reviewed as the increase in their cost has not kept pace of full fare tickets. A strategic decision needs to be taken on whether these tickets should be retained at a low price to encourage sustainable tourism or should see an increase in price to help reduce subvention levels.
  • In forthcoming years capital investment should be able to be reduced as much of the key infrastructure has been renewed in recent years. After the current programme of works concludes the MER and SMR should not need any further renewal for 30 years and the Steam Railway 15 years.
  • Consideration should be given to increase ancillary revenue, for example through development of more directly operated retail and catering outlets.
  • There is no role for the use of volunteers in the existing engineering and operational teams with the possible exception being the Douglas Bay Horse Tramway where a wider pool of volunteers might be sought from those with an interest in horses as well as those with an interest in railways.
  • A Board of Directors should be formed to oversee the management and development of the railways.
  • The railways should remain in public ownership

Of note the report also states that it is important to see the railways as an asset to the economy as well as an important cultural and historical asset. The analysis concluded that for every £1 spent in subvention and capital investment there is a benefit to the economy of £2.88. The total direct and indirect impacts on the economy total around £17 million a year formed of a mixture of spending by visitors and spending by the railway itself.

Tim Crookall MHK, Infrastructure Minister, said: “I’m aware the consultant’s findings have been eagerly awaited by the Manx public and rail enthusiasts alike and it’s appropriate that this information is made available. The recommendations published today will provide the Department and wider community with a firm base from which to view the railways’ current position and then plan their future development. The document supplies a series of key insights that will inform discussions with colleagues across the Isle of Man Government once the full report has been received in the coming weeks.”

It should be remembered that the recommendations in the report are just that – recommendations – and there is no guarantee that these will be taken forward by the government in full or even in part. However, the contents of the report do not appear to have anything too controversial so with any luck things will continue for many years to come on the island’s heritage railways and tramways.

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5 Responses to SYSTRA Isle of Man Railway report recommendations released

  1. Christopher Callan says:

    Once the current management have stood down/retired or simply been hounded out by the remaining bus passengers post “re-imagination” arguably type of thing is needed at Blackpool Tramway. Whether such a report would be too little too late suppose debatable… Look forward to the full report been made available in due course.

  2. Geoff Currie says:

    So get the tramway rebuilt to Sea Terminal ASAP DOI!!!

  3. Geoff, IoM (currently in New Zealand) says:

    Contrary to the impression given by the mis-spelling of ‘Port Erin’ as ‘Pot Erin’ in the report, the residents of this pretty seaside village are not all cannabis users!

    Joking apart, it seems from the summary to be quite fair and positive.

  4. David Mee says:

    Another huge amount of money spent on a report to tell us what we already knew about the value and quality of the Manx transport systems to both the Island and the world.

    Perhaps instead of instructing another bunch of consultants to do the same in a few years time, again at great expense, the powers that be could consider spending the money on developing and promoting these unique and irreplaceable assets for the pleasure and enjoyment of all.

  5. David says:

    I wonder how much money was wasted on getting people to come up with the daftest ideas that they could possible imagine and see if they had got legs. They could have paid for the horse tramway to be returned to the sea terminal if they hadn’t spent that money. What would it cost to tarmac the section from Laxey to Ramsey? A fortune, which would immediately negate the case for singling the track. It makes me furious.

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