Let’s have some sensible ideas from the Government!

It has not been a good week for the commuter. While the falling autumn leaves have yet to cause many major delays, there are a series of threats further afield for those who have to endure the daily journey on the rails.

In quick succession, there have been suggestions that the G & T which makes life bearable on the 6 03 from Waterloo may be a thing of the past because the government is contemplating an alcohol ban on public transport. Then, we had the announcement, largely buried by the Blunkett resignation, that security equipment to screen passengers is to be tested at various main line stations, starting with Heathrow Express passengers Paddington.

And finally, yesterday, we had the idea being mooted by Network Rail that passengers travelling at the height of the peak, between 8 am and 9 am, might be charged extra in order to encourage them to travel when the trains are a bit less heavily used.

The coincidence of this set of announcements almost seems calculated to elicit a collective groan from the half million rail commuters who pile into London every day. The idea of an alcohol ban seems to be one of those typical unthought out schemes dreamt up by what John Prescott called the ‘teenyboppers’ in Downing Street. Tony Blair has declared war on yobbish behaviour, so what better idea than to stop drinking on public transport.

Well, actually, Tone, if you ever used public transport you would know it’s just a few late night revellers on buses who are likely to cause a disturbance, while the people who fill the bars on commuter trains or restaurants on GNER are hardly going to start shooting the moon at their fellow passengers. And as a BBC journalist who stayed up all night on Sunday reported, there were a lot of drunks on the buses, but not much drinking – the passengers had already got plastered at the all night pubs and clubs that you created.

While everyone wants better security, there is no feasible way that even a significant number of the people who make the near six million journeys on national rail and the Underground could be searched. When I asked the Department for Transport why it was funding these pilots, the spokesman said ‘we have to try out the equipment’. Well, why? If someone wants to bomb the trains, they can do so. They do not even have to get on one – as the Canary Wharf bombers showed when they destroyed the Docklands Light Railway with a bomb underneath it. Would Luton, from where the bombers ravelled, ever have security equipment? Let alone East Grinstead or Goring?

This kind of thing shows up the politicians as naked populists, more focussed on playing to the gallery than on real efforts to tackle the issue, which in this case means better intelligence from the security services. Screening even one in a hundred passengers at a main line terminus at rush hour would, quite simply, make the train service unusable.

Then there is the fares issue. Well, here at least there may be a modicum of good news. The government could insist, through the franchising system, that this system would have to be ‘revenue neutral’. In other words, any increases at the peak of the peak, would have to be offset by reductions for those travelling outside it. If such a scheme – which technically is some way down the line anyway – were used to fleece commuters even more, then there could be an outcry.

There is a wider issue about these crazy schemes. When Labour was first elected in 1997, John, for all his faults (and there are many) at least made efforts to improve the lot of the commuter. He wanted people to get out of their cars and onto the railways, and was prepared to back this with a new government body, the Strategic Rail Authority, that was to have a long term vision for the railways. There was a brief period under the SRA’s first head, the late Sir Alistair Morton, when all sorts of exciting ideas were being mooted, from tunnels under London from Wimbledon to Hackney, and 20 year franchises for the operators that would allow them to spend zillions on new trains and stations.

But it was all a mirage. The gauleiters from the Treasury quickly stamped on any prospect of major expansion and while there have been a lot of new trains and a revamped timetable for those using South West Trains, there is little prospect in the future for any major improvements. Those who have to stand today, are very likely to still be standing tomorrow, and indeed with the prospect of a quarter more commuters into Waterloo within 10 years, many more will not find a seat.

Now, it seems, far from wanting people to travel by train, the government is indifferent. Indeed, even if none of these ‘initiatives’ come to pass, merely promoting such ideas as alcohol bans and security checks acts as a deterrent to people jumping on trains. It makes train travel seem like too much of a hassle and people will be tempted to stick to their cars.

Network Rail’s clumsily named ‘Route Utilisation Strategy’ published yesterday is full of good suggestions including such major schemes as an underpass at Woking and work at Clapham Junction to allow more trains to stop there in the rush hour. To be fair to Network Rail, it is showing much more vision than its predecessor, Railtrack, ever did. Indeed, by taking an industry wide view, Network Rail is beginning to look more and more like a kind of embryonic British Rail, which is hardly surprising given that its funding comes almost entirely from the taxpayer.

But Network Rail’s bosses, just like the BR managers, know that without government support and funding for these schemes, all these plans will simply remain on the drawing board. At the moment, there is silence from the Department for Transport but the fact that Alistair Darling, the transport secretary, has just pulled the plug on the plan for a tram in Leeds does not bode well for the prospects for investment down here. Moreover, he may well be contemplating squeezing off peak demand through ‘congestion pricing’ in order to save money on investing in extra capacity in the railways.

That would be a mistake. In many cases, conditions for commuters could be eased with a bit of judicious spending on a few new trains or extra carriages on existing ones. If Darling wants to retain any faith with those using the trains daily, then announcing a few such improvements, rather than trying to ban alcohol or delaying people by frisking passengers, would be far more likely to get their support come the next election.