Rail is more popular than ever. Time to reset the signals

The railways are booming. More people are using them than at any time in their history and the huge growth, which has seen a 50 per cent rise in the past dozen years, shows no sign of abating. Massive amounts of taxpayers’ money are being poured into Network Rail to improve the ageing infrastructure.

Most excitingly of all Britain is about to complete its first high-speed line, between London and the Channel Tunnel, giving European short-haul flights a decent run for their money In a rational world, therefore, the railways would be playing a key role in the improvement of transport infrastructure in the UK. The main lines radiating out of London would be the subject of improvement programmes to boost capacity, while the development of a new freight railway or high-speed line would be under serious consideration. There would, too, be a programme to electrify more of the system, since Britain’s network has a lower proportion of electric trains than other comparable European countries and electric trains emit far less carbon, especially if the electricity is generated from nuclear or wind.

Every other major European country – France, Italy, Spain and Germany – is undertaking major investment in highspeed lines and, while it may be too late to build them here, at the very least the government should be undertaking a serious assessment of their potential in line with Labour’s manifesto commitment.

After all, railways have much to offer. They are far more environmentally friendly than personal motor transport – though not, interestingly, than coaches – provide high standards of comfort and are very important to the economies of the localities they serve.

Yet, none of this has managed to convince the government that the railways have anything but a bit part to play in the transport mix. We hear talk of new airports, supported by government analysis which suggests a doubling of air passengers over the next quarter of a century, and of 10-lane motorways to cater for the insatiable demand to drive. But when it comes to railways, there is thin gruel on offer. While some improvements to the railways are promised, they are very limited, with no commitment to any major schemes, and overall, government spending on rail is to be cut dramatically. The recent white paper on the future of the railways was supposed to sketch out a 30-year strategy for the industry, along The railways not only keep cars off the roads, particularly at peak times, thus ensuring that there is not constant gridlock, but also are crucial to the economic wellbeing of the regions they serve. New or upgraded railway lines are the key to regeneration. The way house prices and office rentals have soared in places such as Southwark and Bermondsey, which are on the new section of London Underground’s Jubilee Line, demonstrates this.

Ministers, however, remain unconvinced. There is nothing new about that. Investment in infrastructure, particularly for public transport, has always been seen as a cost rather than as investment by the Treasury. The value of the railways to wider society has never been recognised by governments. Instead, the railways are supposed to pay their way and be run as commercial businesses. This approach fails to recognise all the benefits they bring to society that cannot be captured through the fare box. My history of the railways, Fire and Steam, shortly to be published, shows that successive administrations neglected the railways throughout the 20th century.

They were overexploited and undercompensated in both world wars, and were set the impossible task of being expected to carry passengers and freight at cheap prices while making a profit and facing growing competition from motor transport. Then they were nationalised and further neglected, then became a plaything of Tory ideology when they were sold off a decade ago.

The same process seems to be under way with the Royal Mail today, which is expected to deliver letters to Wick and Penzance for 24p while remaining profitable in the face of competitors who have no such social obligations.

Given this context, it is no surprise that the 30-year plan is an exercise in damping down expectations rather than looking at new opportunities for the railways. This had been hailed as an opportunity for the government to show its confidence in the railways as part of the solution to the growing congestion crisis on the roads. It proved not to be. Sure, there were a few goodies. There could hardly not be, given that overcrowding on the railways is becoming more apparent daily. So the track lay-out and station at Reading are to be modernised, as is Birmingham New Street station, though most of the money for the latter will come from other sources. The Thameslink project – originally called Thameslink 2000 which illustrates better than anything how major schemes in the UK often take half a generation to get from blueprint to completion – will also get the go-ahead, and there will be 1,300 extra coaches by 2014 rather than the 1,000 previously announced, representing a 7 per cent increase overall.

Otherwise, there is little to cheer about. Most disappointingly, not only is there very little prospect of a high-speed line and the rather more risky concept of a maglev railway has been ruled out, but further electrification is also reckoned not to be worthwhile. That seems to be a very retrograde decision, since electrification has numerous advantages, as it is more environmentally friendly and more reliable and cleaner. The reasons for the opposition to electrification border on the weird. The white paper suggests that a programme to electrify would be expensive, eat up money available for investment and, bizarrely, that “developments in hybrid technology, biofuels and hydrogen fuel cells will improve the carbon performance of self-powered trains”. This is technological mumbo-jumbo. Such trains are long into the future and the technology is unproven. This smacks of civil servants, on orders from ministers, scrabbling around for excuses not to invest.

All of this suggests that Gordon Brown will be little different from his predecessor in putting the case for the railways. Brown was the driving force behind the publicprivate partnership for the London Underground, a highly complex and expensive way of pretending that public infrastructure can be delivered through the private sector. Given the failure of the main private investor, Metronet, which follows on from the collapse five years ago of Railtrack on the national rail network, it is clear that there is now little alternative than coming clean and admitting that most major infrastructure projects have to be supported by the taxpayer.

The heavy spending by Network Rail since the Hatfield accident of 2000 has been portrayed by ministers as making up for British Rail’s failure to invest, but the truth is that costs in the railway have soared since privatisation because of the complex structure and the need for the companies to make a profit. Every year, several hundred million pounds leach out of the system to the private train operators in return for very little investment. Yet, for some unaccountable reason, Labour ministers have stuck with a franchising system which was developed by the Conservatives as a way to ensure services could not be cut back too dramatically by the private operators.

With little investment coming from the private companies there are only two sources of income for the railways – taxes or fares. Hence the move to allow fares to rise in order to shift the burden as much as possible on to the users of the railway. Overall, it seems that the government would like to wish away the fact that more people want to use the railways because it requires substantial investment in increased capacity. Oddly, the only substantial private investment, discounting Network Rail, which is effectively government owned, has come from the rolling stock companies which have been castigated by ministers for overcharging, a dispute which is now in the hands of the Competition Commission.

Despite privatisation, investment in the railways remains largely the responsibility of the public sector. Now that attempts to keep it off the books have failed there is a risk that Network Rail’s near £20bn debt may end up on the government’s balance sheet, at the Treasury. Meanwhile, the passenger experience is becoming increasingly unpleasant as trains are crowded and operators, desperate for revenue, impose restrictions on off-peak travel and urge their on-train staff to treat all passengers as fare dodgers, even when the ticket office has a 20-minute queue.

The ultimate irony is that British Rail used to be blamed for pricing passengers off busy routes in order to avoid having to invest. Now the same thing is happening across the network. Railways are victims of their own success and the parsimony of a government which has shown little interest in exploiting their value as a key part of our infrastructure. The future of rail is of an increasingly crowded network managed by rapacious private companies on behalf of a government which fails to understand the wider value of the network to society. But 30 years is a long time in politics and in public attitudes. And in the meantime France, Germany Spain and Japan will continue to show us the way.

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