The community rail strategy unveiled this week paints a healthy picture for the future of some of the UK's best loved but least used rural rail routes.
However, pessimism remains that the initiative will not be enough to plug an ever-increasing funding gap.
The strategy covers 1,857km of track, around 10.5 per cent of the national network. However, these routes ate up a disproportionate £300 million out of the total £2.6 billion government subsidy in 2002-03, a figure that the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) says has since grown and is projected to grow further.
But rural rail routes are recognised as being vital to the communities they serve. Research by the Institute of Chartered Accountants reveals that three-quarters of members think their railway is important to the business economy of their region. Two-thirds of accountants said that they rely on their local rail service, matching the weight they put on inter-city links.
The strategy aims to double the income from fares on the designated lines while halving the subsidy per passenger over a five-year period. This is to be achieved through a combination of better marketing, changes to fare structures, integration with other transport, special events and charters and a crackdown on fare evasion.
Although few community rail routes still have buildings available to let, increased income from property through commercial development or leasing is also seen as a way forward. Consideration should be given to a presumption in favour of granting planning permission for developments on railway land on these routes, the SRA suggests.
Community rail partnerships already exist and have proved successful.
Norfolk's Bittern Line (see panel) has increased passenger numbers by 162 per cent since the creation of the partnership. The partnerships are not-for-profit organisations embracing local authorities, community groups, rail user groups, train operating companies and in some cases Network Rail.
Under the strategy a prospectus would be prepared for each community rail service to identify constraints and opportunities. The results would feed into regional planning assessments. Local authorities should consider the potential of stations and terminals on community rail lines when reviewing development plans, the SRA recommends.
The strategy has been broadly welcomed by the industry and campaign groups.
Transport 2000 thinks that it should help ensure a sustainable future for railways on the fringe of the network that provide lifelines for isolated communities. Rail campaigner Mick Duncan says: "It looks like Dr Beeching's axe may have been put back in the shed, for the time being at least."
The Association of Community Rail Partnerships has given strong endorsement to the strategy. "We believe it will pave the way towards a strong, sustainable future for local railways, enabling them to play an even more important part in the lives of their communities," says general manager Paul Salveson.
Adrian Lyons, director-general of strategic think-tank and lobby group the Railway Forum, calls the strategy a common sense initiative. It should be up to local people to decide whether to make services more responsive to their needs, he maintains: "If you want to read it as a Beeching II, you can. But what it says is that if local communities want to keep their railway they can."
Lyons cites lines in Cornwall that are packed throughout the summer but deserted in winter, suggesting that rural stations need not employ full-time staff. He also points out that many heritage lines are staffed by volunteers. "In Cornwall, many semi-retired or retired people would jump at the chance. These partnerships could enhance the community by bringing people together," he insists.
Liberal Democrat shadow transport secretary John Thurso is less optimistic.
He accepts that the strategy could offer a solution in certain cases.
But it must not become an "easy way out" for the government to off-load its responsibilities for marginally viable lines onto local communities, he insists.
Stephen Glaister, professor of transport and infrastructure at Imperial College London, is likewise unconvinced that the strategy will make much difference. "If the government is only willing to give a certain amount of money in subsidy it might be better to transfer it to something else," he advises. "Replacing these trains with buses could be an option, but you would have to do a proper analysis of the costs and benefits."
Despite signs of genuine support for the strategy in the Department for Transport (DfT), Duncan still worries about the future of lines where the strategy does not produce the desired results. "The costs of the industry are ludicrously inflated and until we deal with these problems there's a big threat to the less glamorous routes," he contends.
The changes to the industry outlined in the railway bill have raised concerns about the future of the strategy. "It might get lost in some bureaucratic tangle in the DfT," Lyons fears. "I hope the government recognises the implications of not pushing ahead. It's relatively small in terms of the railway, but there will be big consequences if the strategy fails."
Duncan points out that the railway bill has four sections on shutting stations and lines but nothing on growing the railway. "This paints a worrying picture. I am concerned that the long-term future of these lines is still under threat, even with this initiative, which I absolutely think is the right one. It doesn't fill me with enthusiasm," he adds.
Anthony Smith, national director of the Rail Passengers Council, is more positive about the impending legislation. "The bill outlines the structure of the latest rail division at the department and one part of this is the community railways unit. The DfT is certainly envisaging this strategy continuing," he reasons.
But Glaister concludes: "The funding situation at the DfT is pretty desperate.
The timescale for this strategy is rather leisurely. It's going to take a few years to see whether it works. The department might decide that it does not have that much time."
THE BITTERN LINE, NORFOLK
In 1996 a community rail partnership was formed to revitalise the link between Norwich and the Norfolk resorts of Sheringham and Cromer. The project's success is marked by its receipt of a National Transport Award this year.
Norfolk County Council's planning and transportation department leads the Bittern Line partnership, which now has around 70 members. Its founders include district councils along the route, Railtrack, Anglia Railways and the local community.
Two late-night services have been funded by the East of England Development Agency. The station at West Runton hosts an annual platform tea party and attractive gardens managed by the Women's Institute. This and a community notice board exemplify the line's contribution to local life.
Partnership chairman Peter Twiss says the route through the Norfolk Broads and two associated heritage railways attract tourists, while it is also popular with retired local people without cars. "The line was named after a threatened bird species.
At the time, our railway was too," he says. "I am happy to report that it is not so threatened now."