Rail 588: Railway decision making must be devolved

The redoubling of the line between Swindon and Kemble should be one of those no-brainer schemes at the top of the list of priorities for Network Rail. It is a 14 mile stretch of track on the Great Western line between London and Gloucester which was singled in the 1970s under British Rail’s ludicrous penny pinching scheme of removing capacity from the rail network.

The legacy is awful. It takes trains 14 minutes to cover the distance and restricts the service along that line to little more than two per hour. Moreover, it is the main diversionary route should the Severn Tunnel be closed and the parallel road is also inadequate, all of which greatly strengthens the case for the work.

I wrote about the scheme in this column 18 months ago (Rail 551) in positive terms. Although the Route Utilisation Study had not properly considered the redoubling, Network Rail appeared keen and had gone through nearly all the stages of its planning process. There were suggestions that work may even begin by 2009 although the precise cost of the scheme had not been determined. I noted that Network Rail had not said it would ‘definitely’ go ahead but the article was entitled optimistically ‘Has Network Rail changed its spots?’

Well, it seems that the spots may well be in the same place as the project looks stuck again. I bumped into the Stroud MP, David Drew, who has made strenuous efforts over the years to improve the local railway situation and he was deeply depressed: ‘We’ve got so close, but now it seems there are delays. The problem is that I can never find the right person to speak to – if I ask ministers, they say it is up to Network Rail, and if I ask them, they say it is up to the politicians.’

The Network Rail press office accepts that there has been some delay but says: ‘Our intention is still to proceed but as a lot of the spend will come in CP4 [Control Period 4, 2009- 14], we’re waiting for initial findings of the ORR into what our funding package will look like before we commit as it would be foolish to start now and then find we can’t complete as we’re not funded for it come April 2009’. He added that he hoped there would be good news to announce on this in the spring.

The problem with these projects is that their mirage-like quality, as they tend to appear further away when you approach them. Moreover, the issue of accountability arises because it is unclear exactly who is making the decision to go ahead: Network Rail, the Regulator, government ministers or the Department. Certainly, when I asked Robin Gisby, Network Rail’s operations director this question at a conference recently, he said ‘it was up to the government to decide which ones to do’.

This may be true of big schemes but Network Rail is responsible for making decisions about countless smaller ones, and it is sometimes difficult to discern a sensible pattern of spending. A Rail reader, Irving Nicol, recently wrote to me about the fact that £35m has been spent on resignalling the Bedford- Bletchley line but there has been no improvement in passenger services. The work was to renew level crossings and signalling and transfer all obsolete signal boxes to a centrally located signalling centre which will enable 24 hour running

However, Mr Nicol points out that not only have train services not improved, apart from a slight speeding up, but that there are no plans for improvement since, according to the franchisee which is now London Midland, there is no demand. There are half a dozen freight trains per week, but it all seems a tad expensive for a small line with few trains and which cannot be used as a diversionary route as it is not electrified. Even Network Rail’s spokesman admitted that ‘there was no revolutionary increase in trains’. In fact there was none and it seems difficult to justify the 24 hour opening. Now it may be that this was a perfectly sensible way to spend £35m. Perhaps Network Rail is being farsighted as this will form part of the much dreamed of Oxford – Cambridge reopening. But somehow I doubt it. As Mr Nicol says, ‘there does not appear to be any rail business case for the expenditure of £35m plus’. The crucial question is one of accountability – how does Network Rail reach decisions over such spending and with whom does it discuss such decisions?

The same confusion about who runs the railways applies to the franchising process, too, although the government role seems clearer and even stronger. Nigel Harris in the last issue rightly highlighted the madness of minor decisions concerning franchises being made not even by civil servants in Whitehall but by a minister going through her red boxes. What is worse is that you can be assured that Ruth Kelly, or whoever succeeds her, will not then take responsibility for the decisions that have been made.

The clearest example is the First Great Western franchise. It is too easy and simplistic to blame FirstGroup for all the problems that have emerged on the Great Western franchise. As I mentioned in the last issue much of the responsibility lies with the Department for having specified the franchise in such detail, determining not only how many coaches would be needed to operate the timetable, but even the number of drivers – and the latter was about a third lower than required if sickness and spares are taken into account, 750 instead of over 1,000. That’s why FGW have been putting drivers in taxis from Bristol to Penzance and it is now desperately recruiting recently retired footplate staff.

Privatisation, therefore, has politicised the railway in way that is completely contradictory to the idea of those who pushed for the railway to be sold off. If it were not so tragic, it would be funny. On both operations and infrastructure, the department’s civil servants  – and indeed ministers – are making day to day decisions about the railway which should be in the hands of a railway organisation. The Strategic Rail Authority may well not have been perfect, and spent far too much money on consultants and glossy publications, but what we have now is far, far worse, and the railways are crying out for a pan-industry organisation which could be organised on a regional basis.

As also reported in the last issue, Chris Green, the former InterCity boss who is now a non-executive on the board of Network Rail, angered his fellow directors by suggesting that power should be devolved to eight regions, returning to the old zonal system originally created by Railtrack. My view is that both examples I have cited above, Bletchley – Bedford and Swindon – Kemble suggest a need for a local democratic involvement in the process. For a time the Blair government was pushing the idea of strong regional government, but since a defeat over the creation of a devolved body in the North East, the idea has rather faded away.

However, it makes sense. In France and Germany, for example, powerful regional bodies channel vast amounts of grant towards the railways. They recognise the regenerative effect of the railways on their local economies and are happy to provide funding, both for infrastructure and services. In my examples, I think the Swindon project would be speeded up and the Bletchley one have been put on the back burner. As the Rail reader, Mr Nicol puts it, ‘Milton Keynes spends £2m a year supporting public transport; if they had even half the money spent on Bletchley – Bedford it would transform public transport in Milton Keynes.’

He is highlighting a risk that some of the money may go onto investing in buses or even roads, rather than the railways, but if the government set criteria that gave proper account to the environment – in other words not just a ‘business case’ – then rail projects would often have the stronger case. This has certainly been the experience in areas London, Scotland and Wales which all have devolved powers. The case for a reappraisal of how the vast sums spent on the railways are allocated is unarguable. Perhaps Gwyneth Dunwoody’s Commons Transport Committee might take a look at it.

Google maps – made in America

Has anyone else noticed that Google maps do not show the location of stations? They show railway lines but the only clue to where the station might be is the name of roads such as ‘station approach’ or ‘railway drive’.

Of course in America, the home of Google, where most stations have long disappeared or are barely used, that may not be such a problem. But in the UK, the station is one of the key locations for many purposes, not just train travel. It seems to be a deliberate policy rather than just a lacuna to omit stations in this way.

There is a serious issue. As more and more people rely on digital means of finding their way, the absence of train stations may well deter some  potential rail users. It is as if Google were writing out a whole piece of our history and our infrastructure. Here is something for the new team at the Association of Train Operating Companies to start making a fuss about.

  • Mark Williams

    Google Earth do indeed show stations, railway lines, metro stops and bus stops, but you’ll have to search hard to find them. Its toggle is hidden deep in the menus and sub-menus of the transport menu. Hard work indeed…