Over the last 30 or more years, increases in car ownership and use have contributed to a decline in public transport services, particularly in rural areas. Railways have suffered from reduced passenger loading, making some services unprofitable. In response, public authorities have labelled some railway operations as socially necessary, to meet the mobility needs of those without access to cars or bus routes. EC regulations 1191/69 and 1893/91 allow Member States to provide financial support to railway services that cannot be provided on a commercial basis. In the past, this has been done through public service obligations and block grants, but the current policy preference is towards contracts subsidising the provision of specific services. However, the definition of a socially necessary rail service and the evaluation criteria to be used in their selection need clarification.
The goal of SONERAIL was to improve the decision-making basis regarding the provision of socially necessary rail services, by providing a practical evaluation methodology.
SONERAIL defined a socially necessary rail service as one with a positive net social value, taking into account the social benefits and costs for users and non-users of the service. This includes aspects such as changes in congestion, environmental impacts and travel time. The definition is independent of whether the service is financially loss making or not, although only loss-making services would be considered as candidates for subsidy.
The project devised a two-stage method (in the form of a prototype software tool) for evaluating services that have (previously) been identified as financially unprofitable:
- First, a cost-benefit analysis is used to calculate the net social benefit. This covers only those impacts that can be quantified in monetary terms. The output is a list of services deemed socially necessary.
- A multi-criteria analysis is then used to prioritise the candidate services within the overall budget for subsidies (assumed to be fixed). This analysis takes into account further impacts that cannot be expressed in monetary terms, such as stress levels, vibration and economic regeneration.
The evaluation methodology was tested on case studies of 25 rail services across Europe (in the UK, The Netherlands, Germany, Greece, Italy and the Czech Republic). Annual net benefits ranged from -4 to +5 million Euros, with 15 of the services appearing to be socially profitable. For each of the services, action plans were devised aimed at increasing patronage, decreasing costs and encouraging a shift from car travel.
SONERAIL also considered the likely impact of current railway policy initiatives designed to increase efficiency and competition. Although costs may decrease overall, this may not improve significantly the position of socially necessary services. For example, the approach adopted in charging for infrastructure could be critical to the financial viability of marginal services.
The evaluation methodology is designed for use by national funding authorities, rail operators and the European Commission. The case study work showed that the methodology is suitable to assess the social benefits and costs associated with rail service closure or retention. The required input data generally exist, although confidentiality issues may create problems with access. Further work would be needed to develop the methodology into a full-scale application tool. More broadly, further research is needed on the valuation of noise and non-monetary impacts.
The methodology is well suited to screening the candidates for subsidy. A more detailed analysis of net social benefit may be required subsequently, taking account of additional factors such as the possible infrastructure cost savings from rail service closure, and the results of site-specific modelling and surveys of consequences for road traffic (such as changes in congestion).