Station with only two passengers points way to cull of branch lines

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THIS IS Britain's least used railway station - Sugar Loaf Halt. Just two passengers a week use it, raising annual revenues of pounds 98. Hidden in a cutting eight miles from Llandovery, the station is part of the Heart of Wales line running between Llanelli and Shrewsbury.

As, yesterday, the 10.47 clattered past the single 20-yard platform with its metal shelter and breeze-block wall, not a single person was in sight; only a sole grazing sheep looked up briefly.

Services stop here only on request; passengers have to hold out their arms to hail the train. The guard has to be told in advance if there is a customer.

"I've never seen anybody at the station," said one of a group of travellers who have set up their regular summer camp overlooking the halt. "We're not surprised it's Britain's least used station. However, if they tried to close it, loads of people would claim to be using it."

Indeed, Sugar Loaf Halt is under threat. The rail industry is lobbying the Government to allow it to cut unused rural services in, it claims, a desperate attempt to avert financial disaster because subsidies are falling by almost pounds 1bn. Measures were put in place at privatisation to protect such services, but rail companies say they are now unsustainable.

The Railway Forum, the umbrella body of the 100 privatised companies, said: "If a station only serves one passenger every three days, it is fair to question whether resources are being channelled in the way that best services rural communities."

A senior industry source said: "In a few years' time when the Government is less popular and it has a stark choice between a rail service used by 100 people or 1,000 hip replacements, it is pretty clear which Gordon Brown will go for."

The industry believes that on some lines it is cheaper to give each passenger a taxi. Subsidy per trip across Wales & West, which operates the line along Sugar Loaf Halt and is part of Prism, is pounds 5.25 compared with fare revenue of pounds 3.90.

Jonathan Bray, spokesman for the Save Our Railways campaign group, said: "There is a danger we are slipping and sliding towards another Beeching. It is a disgrace that the people who are meant to be advocating the railways are talking down rail's ability to revive the rural transport network."

Mr Bray said the transport agenda was being driven by the bus companies, such as Prism, which now run trains. "They are trying to wipe out rural rail services and replace them with buses."

Back at the halt Ken Jones, a farmer who lives near by, said ramblers sometimes got off the train. "There used to be five railway houses there and a signal box, but Beeching put paid to that. It was opened again about 10 years ago." No one commutes to work and there are only two farmers in the area.

Colonel Timothy Van-Rees, a member of Powys County Council, said the station was essential to the local economy. "With the decline in farming incomes, tourism's our future and this station is of material assistance."

However, a guard was surprised when The Independent stopped a train. He couldn't recall the last time anyone had done so.