Staycations 'helping rural train lines enjoy huge growth'

By Richard Scott
Transport correspondent, BBC News

media captionLiskeard- Looe line station manager Mike Trotter: 'It's a privilege to be able to operate this branch line'

Many rural railway lines have seen a huge increase in popularity in the last three years, the rail industry says.

Operators say journey numbers on some lines in Cornwall and Derbyshire almost doubled between 2007-08 and 2010-11.

The industry puts the success partly down to the "staycation" effect, with people choosing to holiday at home instead of going abroad.

Many of the fastest-growing branch lines connect to seaside resorts and towns, and show spikes during summer.

The Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc) says there are now around 40 million local and rural rail journeys made each year.

The 10 branch lines with the biggest percentage growth saw total journeys increase from 4.5m to nearly 7m between April 2008 and March 2011.

Atoc collects data for the 27 stretches of track designated as "community rail routes" by the Department for Transport - typically low-speed, countryside routes provided by one operator.

Edward Welsh, director of corporate affairs at Atoc, said such lines were helping rural economies by bringing in "hundreds of thousands of people a year into towns and villages".

Community partnership

One example of the recent success is the Looe Valley line, in Cornwall. This single track line runs between the towns of Liskeard and Looe.

The train - which has its capacity doubled to two carriages for the summer peak - simply spends the day shuttling between the two towns, sometimes pausing to let walkers off at the tiny stations in between.

The line is run in partnership with the local community, with volunteers helping out with tasks such as painting and looking after the flower pots.

"It is a vital part of the community and the economy," said Rebecca Catterall from Devon and Cornwall Rail Partnership.

"If you turned round tomorrow and said that the Looe line wouldn't exist anymore, people would be in uproar. We'd have demonstrations and all sorts. People feel very protective and very passionate about their line."

The Looe Valley line has seen journeys rise by 12.4% over the last year to more than 95,000. Some branch lines have seen even bigger increases in passenger numbers.

About 35 miles further west is the Truro to Falmouth line, which saw passengers rise 91% from 265,000 to 505,000 between 2007-08 and 2010-11.

To the east, the Bristol Temple Meads to Severn Beach line saw journeys go up by 90% over the same period, with 801,000 passengers recorded in 2010-11.

The Derby to Matlock line had 399,000 passengers last year - a rise of 86% in three years.

'A special line'

The industry says the increases are partly down to people holidaying in the UK as well as better promotion and more reliable services, which means people can also commute on them.

image captionDespite their charm many rural stations have infrequent services

"The anticipation of people when they get on the train, when they see the valley open up with the river alongside, it's just a special line for me and my area, and one of the best little branch lines I have in my area of responsibility," said Mike Trotter, who looks after the Looe Valley line for First Great Western.

The line's charm is added to by the sight of the guard having to get off the train at Coombe Junction Halt in order to walk down the track to change the points as the train changes direction.

However, there are some disadvantages which come with the picturesque riverside line.

Because it's a single track, there's only one train an hour. Some of the small stations along the line only have trains stopping during the morning and evening peaks - and even then it's on request.

Passengers waiting on the platforms have to wave to the driver to ask him to stop, whilst those on board who want to get off have to tell the guard at the start of the journey.

Many of the busiest branch lines - like Looe Valley - run to seaside towns, and their rising popularity helps boost local economies and eases congestion on small country roads.

Among the lines showing most growth, the Arun Valley line in Sussex had the most passengers - with nearly three million during the last year, a 53% rise on 2007-08.

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