CRISS-CROSSING Britain's rail network is often more difficult than one might think. The recasting of certain services, particularly in rural areas since privatisation, has left some towns with inadequate or simply no connections to neighbouring communities, that in some cases are only a few miles away, even though the infrastructure still exists.

Open-access operators have gone some way to plug these gaps in the network with new and direct services to London that do not conflict with existing franchise operators. Hull Trains, Grand Central, and Wrexham & Shropshire were all established to offer new direct links to the capital, and have been relatively successful in reconnecting certain isolated areas.

Go! Cooperative, which last month announced plans to begin operating in December 2011, intends to plug a different gap. By providing a reliable direct link from the southwest to the midlands, specifically Oxford and Birmingham, Go! hopes to offer a new valuable rail link for many of the region's growing communities.

Initial plans are for Go! to run trains from Yeovil Junction to Oxford, Banbury and Birmingham via Westbury, Chippenham and Swindon. Draft timetables developed by Go! in conjunction with Funkwerk, Britain, outline plans for four services a day to operate primarily during the morning and evening peak on the core route from Yeovil to Oxford, with three continuing to Birmingham Moor Street via Banbury and Leamington Spa. An extension south from Yeovil to Dorchester and Weymouth would require an additional train which would be introduced after the initial service is established.
Go! used Network Rail's (NR) route utilisation strategy, Department for Transport (DfT) reports, traffic counts, census data, and individual and organisation contributions to identify the proposed route, which fulfils the criteria for establishing an open-access service by expanding rail links to underserved towns such as Melksham and Frome and between the larger population centres of Swindon (pictured) and Oxford.

Go! estimates that 750,000 people live within 2km of stations on the proposed corridor, not including Birmingham, and as business development director Mr Chris Phillimore explains, the company's vision is to promote not just rail, but multi-modal integrated local transport connections in these areas as a viable alternative to the car.

"What we're planning to do is more than introduce social enterprise into the rail market, but manage rail activities so it can feed into several other transport connections," Phillimore says. "In some cases we are looking at feeder buses, and elsewhere feeder light rail operations. There is also a plan to introduce car clubs, or car pools, which exist in some places in Britain, but are much bigger overseas. All of these will be integral to us operating a common pattern of service."

With negotiations ongoing, Phillimore could not provide specific details about which areas might be served by light rail except that they are likely to be tailored to freight-only lines. He did, however, say that any service would have to be streamlined and cheap to run to provide a larger profit margin. He also hinted that Go! is looking beyond the proposed start-up route.

"In the longer term the plan is certainly to operate more than one line," Phillimore says. "It may seem quite ambitious coming from a start-up company, but from our point of view we only see the route as beneficial in a long term perspective if it links up with other lines. We have got to learn to walk before we can run, but our business strategy is intended to serve two to three routes. Whether these will be branches from the initial route, or separate lines that run into each other we will see."

A major hurdle that Go! is yet to overcome is securing an operating license for the British network. Phillimore says that he and his partners have been in regular discussions with NR and the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR), which grants licenses, since the company was set up just over a year ago and he expects to secure the license in early 2011.

The ORR will establish whether there is sufficient network capacity and infrastructure in place to support a new service, and will also consider whether Go! has adequate financial backing to support itself independently. As the first cooperative business to enter the rail market, concerns emerged during the development process about whether enough capital could be raised to meet the expensive start-up costs.

As a result, unlike many other cooperative enterprises, Go! is a multi-stakeholder cooperative, which invites investments from third parties to avoid being burdened by debt, but limits their voting rights to 25% to prevent the business from being run for profit alone. Passengers and workers, who hold a 50% and 25% share in votes, are, however, restricted to buying shares with capped returns, while non-user members could be offered a wider range of investment options.

Phillimore estimates that Go! will require £500,000-750,000 during the development phase of the project, and £6-7 million to operate the service. He says that significant capital and equity investments have already been secured, with discussions continuing with other prospective investors from both inside and outside the railway industry. Investments can range from £500 to £20,000, or no limit for industrial and provident societies, with early forecasts showing that Go! should expect to be in the black by 2013, and profitable by 2015.

"Part of the work that we are doing at the moment is to finalise our business and funding plans to make sure they are deliverable," he says. "Investors know that part of the investment is risky, as it always is with any investment, but we are pretty confident that we can make a good business case for it. Our big concern is that other people could have the same idea, but you can only stay private for so long and we feel now is the time that we have to go public. We have to put our head above the parapet."

As for rolling stock, Phillimore says that Go!'s preferred option is to use push-pull locomotives and coaches. He says that the company has spoken to a number of suppliers, and, subject to committee approval, it is likely that Go! will operate used trains similar to the class 67 locomotives and Mark 3 coaches adopted by Wrexham & Shropshire. The light rail lines are likely to use either decommissioned dmus or similarly lightweight vehicles.

Phillimore says that the lack of availability of new rolling stock in Britain, and the dearth of domestic manufacturers, inevitably makes it more difficult for start up operations to secure the rolling stock they need. He is, though, confident that Go!'s service will be of great benefit to the people of the southwest and the midlands, and the British network as a whole.

"What we're trying to do is combine the best aspects of the cooperative social enterprise sector with the rail industry and to try to bring the best elements of both together into a new venture," Phillimore says. "With regard to existing transport operators, we hope to develop cordial relationships with them. We don't see ourselves as adversaries with other operators, but we're here to fill a gap which exists in the network."