The island’s heritage railways are facing their biggest threat in half a century, according to MHK Daphne Caine.

Hundreds of visitors from as far afield as Australia and the USA travelled to the island for last week’s Transport Festival, which marked the 150th anniversary of the Steam Railway and the 130th anniversary of the Manx Electric Railway.

The week-long event culminated last Sunday evening with a ‘steam extravaganza’ at Douglas railway station featuring a line-up all the available vintage locomotives.

But the festival came at a time when the future operation of heritage rail is coming under the microscope with a review being carried out by consultants Systra.

And the capital budget for maintenance of the lines was halved in this year’s Budget.

Garff MHK Daphne Caine said: ‘I highlighted in my budget speech this year that the heritage rail maintenance budget has been halved from £4.5m to £2.25m. But worryingly no budget is allocated from 2025 onwards.

‘It prompts the question have they already decided railways won’t be part of DoI, preempting the latest Systra review. I’m concerned how 100km of heritage rail tracks and rolling stock can be safely maintained without adequate funding.

‘After significant investment made during Ian Longworth’s tenure as director of transport – making up for decades of under investment – the department now seems to have a cavalier attitude to railways. They don’t seem to rate them for their historic or social value, only focusing on costs.

‘Of course we need to keep a close watch on government spending following the pandemic; we need to consider more efficient operation of public transport and prioritise support for people in a cost of living crisis.

‘But we should be wary of causing irreversible damage to our railways. How many times do people rue the day they closed the Peel and Ramsey lines?

‘I am very concerned that this is the greatest threat facing our remaining heritage railways in 50 years.’

Questions were raised at the July Tynwald about the impact of cuts on the island’s railway network.

Chris Thomas, who had been asked to step down as Infrastructure Minister just the day before, described the reduction in the capital budget for heritage rail as ‘quite substantial’, claiming it had gone from £4.5m to £1.5m.

But Treasury Minister Alex Allinson told the Examiner: ‘There have been no recent cuts to any agreed budgets and the heritage rail allocation.’

He said the capital budget for heritage rail for 2022-23 was £5.4m, of which £4.5m was a new approval in the year and £0.9m was carried forward from the previous year. The capital budget for 2023-24 was £2.25m and this was a new approval in full, he said.

Dr Allinson said: ‘A finite amount of capital budget was available for 2023-24 however Treasury was able to allocate £2.25m to be prioritised in line with the heritage rail maintenance programme.’

In Tynwald, Chief Minister Alfred Cannan listed the major schemes impacted by the reduction this year. These included track and overhead line replacement, completion of repair works to some locomotives and a pause in recruitment for the replacement of some roles.

He said the terms of reference for the Systra review do not refer to reductions in length of lines or rolling stock but it will analyse the cost-benefit viability of each major section of the railways on a standalone and combined basis.

Mr Cannan said: ‘The purpose is to properly understand the detailed infrastructure costs so we can understand how much it costs to run the railways and then make appropriate decisions in terms of funding levels and what sort of appropriate structure might be considered.’