UK's regional light rail services at risk from coronavirus outbreak

Northern cities’ networks need urgent help from the Treasury to cope with collapse in fares

Crucial publicly owned transport services could face the axe because of lost revenues due to passengers staying away, cities around England have warned, as Metro light rail systems losing tens of millions of pounds a month are not covered by the Treasury’s support for bus and rail operators during the coronavirus lockdown.

While private rail franchises have been replaced by guaranteed income, and bus operators’ revenue topped up, the government has yet to bail out major urban networks including Manchester’s Metrolink, the Tyne and Wear Metro and Liverpool’s Merseyrail, as well as the London Underground.

Cities and regional transport authorities have kept services running for key workers including medical staff, while encouraging other passengers to stay away, meaning huge falls in fare revenue.

Mayors have pressed the Department for Transport for assistance but no scheme has been agreed after weeks of talks. The mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, said transport authorities and operator Keolis were having to “make tough choices to reduce costs” on Metrolink.

He added: “While Metrolink has a proud history of operating without financial subsidy, the current crisis means that is no longer a viable or sustainable option. The government has already stepped in to bail out bus and train operators, so it is only right that a similar package is offered to light rail networks.”

Jamie Driscoll, mayor of the North of Tyne combined authority, warned that the Tyne and Wear Metro needed emergency funding of £10m by July. “Ridership is down 95%, and we are losing £900,000 a week compared to the normal baseline. It is the foundation of the urban economy and essential for key workers to get to work. If we can’t operate our light rail systems, there is going to be no realistic prospect of an economic recovery.

“We just want it to be treated the same as [national] rail and the bus system. Why is it that the publicly owned light rail systems are being left out?”

The Midland Metro light rail service is losing around £1m a month during the crisis. Laura Shoaf, managing director of Transport for West Midlands, which owns and operates the service, said: “We’re trying to run a temporary network that is clean and safe and has enough capacity so people can be on it socially isolated – roughly 40 people on a [210-capacity] tram – and to make travel free where possible.

“We want to do the right thing, but without any revenue all transport authorities are going to need assistance. Otherwise, we can’t afford to run it and I would have to mothball the tram. It is taking a lot of key workers to hospitals and it would be a huge problem.”

Sheffield’s Supertram, operated by Stagecoach, could also be at risk without support.

A Liverpool city region combined authority spokesperson said that it was “in dialogue with the DfT about exploring potential support” for the publicly owned and operated Merseyrail.

Revenue losses at Transport for London, particularly on the Underground, have far outstripped that of other cities’ public transport services, but TfL is understood to be more confident of securing additional funding. Simon Kilonback, chief finance officer, said TfL was “facing a substantial reduction in income” from having cut passenger numbers to stop the spread of coronavirus but was “working closely with the government and is in constructive discussions over the support that can be made available”.

Sign up to the daily Business Today email or follow Guardian Business on Twitter at @BusinessDesk

A DfT spokesperson said: “We are aware of the challenges faced by light rail operators and continue to work closely with the sector and local authorities on the best solution for passengers.”

The government suspended rail franchise agreements in March to avoid train companies collapsing, taking on revenue and cost risk and paying operators to continue running services. A £400m package of relief for buses, including topping up fare income to normal levels, was announced at the start of April.


Gwyn Topham Transport correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Trans-Pennine rail tunnel key to £15bn transport plan for northern England
125mph line modelled on Eurotunnel would link Manchester to Leeds and Sheffield, which currently suffer severe overcrowding

Helen Pidd, northern editor, and Dominic Smith

05, Aug, 2014 @12:06 PM

Article image
Transport spending in London still twice northern England's
Report says despite ‘northern powerhouse’ plan, gap in spending is widening

Helen Pidd North of England editor

20, Nov, 2018 @6:15 PM

Article image
Pacer train passengers deserve fare cuts, say northern England leaders
Northern Rail urged to compensate people forced to use outdated ‘buses-on-rails’

Maya Wolfe-Robinson

21, Oct, 2019 @9:38 AM

Article image
North of England mayors reject support plans for local Covid lockdowns
Greater Manchester’s Andy Burnham said government package would mean ‘failure and collapse’ for businesses

Molly Blackall

10, Oct, 2020 @2:55 PM

Article image
Lockdown: what do England's frustrated regional mayors want?
The three-tier Covid system could cause financial ruin, north of England and Midlands leaders say. Here are their demands

Amy Walker

13, Oct, 2020 @2:23 PM

Article image
Tories promise £4bn for public transport in Midlands and north
Election pledge counters Labour plans to renationalise railways and cut ticket prices

Peter Walker Political correspondent

04, Dec, 2019 @12:01 AM

Article image
Transport gap: London gets £419 more per head than north of England
North has missed out on £63bn over 10 years due to chronic underfunding, thinktank says

Helen Pidd North of England editor

01, Aug, 2018 @3:38 PM

Article image
Manchester and Liverpool mayors call for termination of Northern rail
Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram urge transport secretary to act after year of misery

Helen Pidd North of England editor

29, May, 2019 @7:21 AM

Article image
Rail chaos in north of England cost economy £38m, report says
Northern Rail reintroduces 75% of services cut in June, due to a timetable change, on Monday

Amy Walker

30, Jul, 2018 @7:24 AM

Article image
Masks should remain mandatory on public transport, say English mayors
Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham also in favour of continued mask-wearing in essential shops

Peter Walker, Helen Pidd, Linda Geddes and Gwyn Topham

05, Jul, 2021 @5:47 PM