North West Trains and Wales and West are the first operators to announce proposals to cut frequencies on some routes to the legal minimum service level, agreed at the time of privatisation, unless they get financial support from local authorities. Wales and West will see its subsidy fall from pounds 73.3m last year to pounds 40.5m in 2003.
The operators have been attacked by pressure groups who fear a return to the Beeching era of the Sixties, when British Rail closed thousands of miles of track and replaced train services with buses. Save Our Railways says that other operators could decide to cut rural and branch services to minimum service levels if the Government does not intervene: for example, Thames Trains' Bicester Town-Oxford service (see story, right).
Another fear is that rural services will be replaced by bus and coach links. For example, Stagecoach Holdings signed a deal this month which allows it to take a major stake in Virgin Rail Group. Part of this agreement includes the provision of coach services in places where there is already or a proposed rail link, according to SOR.
These duplications include the Salcombe-Torbay-Exeter, Stranraer-Dumfries- Carlisle, and Cambridge to Milton Keynes via Bedford routes.
SOR is demanding that the Transport minister, Dr John Reid, renegotiates the contracts with these companies to prevent the cuts in services, and introduces measures to protect them.
A spokesman for SOR said: "Rural rail services are going to be allowed to decline. This is an early warning of what is to come. It was always likely that private companies would concentrate on profitable routes at the expense of branch and feeder services. We need to see existing contracts renegotiated to give full protection for rural and secondary services."
The Transport 2000 pressure group also believes it is vital that the Government, which has said it wants to improve rural public transport and has stepped up grants for rural bus services, takes action.
"Research shows that rural railways are not some add-on. We are concerned that companies are going ahead with cuts," said a spokesman. "It will depend on how the Government reacts. If operators sense that they can carry out these cuts without intervention then there is the danger that other companies will follow."
Lewis Andrews, chairman of the North Devon Rail Users Group, which is opposed to plans by Wales and West to reduce the Exeter-Barnstaple service from 11 trains a day to seven, says the cuts will hit the mid-morning and mid-afternoon links vital for tourists as well as local people. He says there has been an 8 per cent increase in use of the "Tarka line", which attracts more than 20,000 passengers a year.
Mr Andrews said: "They are trying to blackmail the council into giving them a subsidy. They have said they are committed to the line, then they do this.
"The route it goes through is such a scenic part of the country including the Tor valley and is used by commuters as well as tourists.
"It's a vital public transport link and the only railway into North Devon. It has been running for 140 years. The line is not making money but then many main-line routes are not. The only way to do that is to promote the line.
"It's a slippery slope. If the operators reduce services to the minimum then they may reduce these even further when they renegotiate their contracts with the Government."
However, the train operators who have proposed the cuts say they are necessary on unprofitable lines.
A spokesman for North West Trains said it was too early to discuss proposals to scrap its Wrexham-Bidston Sunday service and several local trains east of Llandudno Junction on the North Wales main line, and to reduce its Liverpool-Chester service.
He said: "These lines are losing vast amounts of money and we are looking to councils to subsidise these lines in order to provide the current level of service. But the timetable has not yet been finalised and we are only proposing to scrap one or two lines. In return we would add more stops to other routes."
Wales and West said discussions were "ongoing" on plans to reduce services which had seen a decline in passenger numbers.
"Legally we can go as far as the minimum operating level," a spokesman said. "However, the funding process is still being discussed on how we can provide services over and above this."
FOR PEOPLE who live in the historic market town of Bicester, its threatened rail link with Oxford is not so much a lifeline as a quality- of-life line, writes Jonathan Irwin.
Bicester is a pleasant enough town, they say, but for entertainment, or work, Oxford is the place to go.
David Roberts, 24, one of the people heading for Oxford from Bicester Town station on Friday, said: "I was the manager of a store in Bicester until last week and now I'm hoping to sign on at a few agencies in Oxford to get a job. I prefer to get the train because it's a lot more economical than buses."
One thing that made Bicester a good place to live was that it was only 20 minutes from Oxford by train, he said. "Bicester isn't the best place for a night out. Oxford is 10 times better and I tend to do my socialising there."
Catherine Bennett, 29, a mother-of-three from Southwold, Bicester, makes full use of the train during school holidays and to visit her family. "My family all live in Oxford and it's a lot easier than a bus because you can wheel the pushchair straight on, and it's a lot more fun for the children. I would certainly miss the trains a lot."
People with disabilities often depend on public transport, and George Hutchison, 58, who lives seven miles from Bicester in the village of Westbury, finds the train a lifeline. He said: "I had an epileptic fit and have to wait a year before I can drive again. I am having to see a physiotherapist in Oxford because I have a trapped nerve in my elbow. My wife has been able to drive me to Bicester to catch the train, but if that wasn't running I would dread catching the bus because the services are not very good. Also, parking in Oxford is difficult and expensive, so anyone shopping is pleased to park in Bicester and catch a train in."
Lynn Beasley, 43, is one of the many regular train travellers to Oxford for shopping and evening entertainment. "If you want anything beyond pubs you have got to go somewhere else," she said. "I would miss having the choice of the train, but I know a lot of people use it to go to work as well. My parents don't have a car and so when they come to see me I would have to go to collect them from Oxford."
Businessman Tim Hillier, aged 44, of Ardley, near Bicester, is typical of the commuters who use the train. He said: "Driving into Oxford is awful. It's ironic that when so many people are saying we should use public transport more, there is talk of ending this service."