Rail passengers fight to save one-way service

THERE is a train service where passengers recline in leather seats, chat with the driver and get dropped off at their destination's door.

It is not a futuristic vision of Britain's rail service, but the story of the taxi ride that masquerades as the 6:48 morning train from Derby to Sinfin, an industrial suburb of the city. And, if the fat controllers of the private rail network get their way, its journey could be over for good.

Today, public hearings start to close the branch line to the two stations in Sinfin, a three- minute, two-mile journey from the centre of Derby, which costs pounds 1.20 and for more than four years has been served only by a taxi replacing the scheduled service.

Although the taxi takes longer, the chief benefit for the three regular users is that they do not have to walk from the station - the taxi takes them all the way to their workplaces. One is dropped at his factory at Peartree, a stop half way down the line and the two remaining regulars are driven right to the door of the Rolls-Royce plant.

The downside is that the service is only one way. Returning in the evening they have to walk and take the bus - or a normal taxi at pounds 3.20

At the hearing the Midlands Rail Users' Consultative Committee, the local passenger watchdog, will hear objections from one of the three and Derby City Council, who claim that closing railway stations runs counter to the Government's policy of promoting public transport.

Asking for the line to be shut is John O'Brien, the franchising director who sold-off the railways for the last administration to the private sector.

Mr O'Brien says that trains cannot use the track because it is fitted with "outdated" track circuits which are "incompatible with modern rolling stock". It would cost pounds 50,000, he adds, to allow modern trains to use the railway and another pounds 20,000 to get more services running.

"As a consequence of this Central Trains has been providing a taxi service on a daily basis since September 1993 to convey the small number of passengers using the service,"he says in his closure proposal.

Last week, however, passengers sang the line's praises. "We feel rather special," said Terry Hackman, as he sank into the deep seats of the 75 Taxi, a black cab which drew up on time on Derby station forecourt, summoned each morning by the stationmaster.

Mr Hackman, who the principal objector to the closure, makes the journey from Belper to Derby just to catch the Sinfin express. He remembers the line's heyday after it was first opened in 1977. "When the trains ran quite a few people would leave their cars at home and take the train to save petrol," he reminisced.

"I have known as many as five people take the taxi. But there's usually three of us. I think one of us is away at the moment. We're quite friendly, on first name terms. The taxi journey takes about 10 minutes, which is longer than the train which took just three minutes. But this is a door- to-door service." In fact, the taxi has been not been near Peartree or Sinfin Central stations since 1994.

Richard Armshaw, one of the two workers who travel on to Sinfin and the Rolls-Royce factory, has been a fan of since he started using the service last September. "The only problem with the service is that there isn't a return leg. I have to walk a mile to a bus stop and then wait for a bus into town. I don't get home much before 7.30pm. I haven't had a chance to make my feelings known to the public inquiry about what I'd like to see happen, but it would be much easier for me if there were a regular service from Derby to where I work," he said.

On the surface, this appears just another bizarre tale of farce on the nation's railway. In fact, it is a victim of cuts imposed on the country's trainset. Built to relieve congestion in 1977, the Derby-Sinfin run carried at hits peak 3,000 people a day to work at the Rolls- Royce plant. By 1994, cuts in services left just a few hundred passengers a day so the trains were replaced by buses, losing even more passengers. Last year, the line notched up a little over 600 passenger journeys.

The passenger watchdog has also received complaints that the service was being run with the minimum legal service in order to drive away passengers. This would, experts believe, would make a closure attempt more likely to succeed.

However, the people with most to lose are the taxi drivers for whom the route has become a nice little earner. "It will be a shame if it comes to an end but we will have to wait and see," said Gary, the taxi driver.

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