Having spent three days chairing the rail conference at the Passenger Terminal Expo 2009 at the Excel centre – the week before it was taken over by the G20 – I was struck, yet again, by the way that investment plans in many other countries seem to be so much better coordinated than in Britain.
The presentations at the conference were mostly impressive. The range and breadth of ambition of various railways around the world is truly breathtaking and it is clear that rail in the 21st century is a very exciting industry. Of course there were a couple of presentations about St Pancras, and it was interesting to learn how the developers had been very strict about allowing ensuring shops only gave very limited space to their logos and signs, something which really helps the building retain its historic feel. In contrast, the privatised Italian Grandi Stazioni will stop at nothing to maximise advertising income – such as huge screens that dwarf the information displays and cubes that get in the way of passenger flow.
On this score, then, the British way seemed better but there is always the impression here that any investment has to be dragged out of a resistant government and is never part of a coherent strategy to improve public transport. In contrast, in most of Europe, railways and stations are seen as a public service. Bijlmer ArenA station is in a deprived area of the Amsterdam suburbs, and was rebuilt a couple of years ago through a partnership of the local city authorities and the Dutch railway. It is a stunning and well thought through design by Grimshaw Associates, the same company responsible for the elegant – but sadly now redundant Waterloo International (could someone please tell me what is happening to those unused platforms?) The roof is clad in expensive Oregon pine not only to dampen the noise of the high speed trains rushing through the station but also to add to the aesthetic quality of the environment, something that is seen as essential to reduce the incidence of vandalism, especially graffiti. And it works. According to the architect, Neven Sidor, the station has created a kind of graffiti free zone in an area where generally it is rife. Of course the cost, at 130m Euros (say £120m now, but around £100m then) was more than was strictly necessary to produce a new station but the extra investment was money well spent, ensuring that the station was the centrepiece of the area’s redevelopment programme.
There were, too, some examples of bad design, notably from Germany, where dark subways, lack of information, clutter on the platform and stern but irrelevant notices abounded.
What came across from so many of the presentations was that good design is essential to make passengers feel safe but that it does not need to be expensive. The best way of reducing the incidence of crime is to ensure that large numbers of passengers use stations, and while in Britain the focus tends to be on hiring expensive security guards, on the Continent far more thought seems to be given to ensuring that stations provide the kind of attractive environment which will ensure people feel safe.
The sheer scale of several projects dwarfed even the £850m spent on St Pancras. Amazingly, the two biggest were in the United States where in both San Francisco and New York huge holes are being dug underneath the downtown areas as part of multi billion dollar projects to accommodate extended rail lines with the aim of improving suburban rail services. This is part of the rail revival in the United States that has received a big boost from the election of Barack Obama and the implementation of his revival package for the economy.
The most interesting presentation, however, which had the most relevance to the UK in many respects was a far more modest scheme in the south of Sweden, the region of Skåne, made famous by the rather bleak Henning Markell detective stories recently featured on the BBC starring Kenneth Branagh. On the face of it this seems unpromising railway territory, a relatively lightly populated area with just 1.2m people and no sizeable towns apart from Malmö.
Yet, thanks to steady and long term investment, train travel has grown by 10 per cent annually for the past eight years as a series of lines have been reopened or refurbished and given a regular service. With 49 new trains four coach electric trains being bought from Alstom (as these are off the shelf they cost a mere 230m Euros, less than £1m each coach at the time of purchase two years ago) and a series of station improvements to ensure easier access to the trains. The investment came from the local regional authority’s transport arm, Skånetrafiken, and, of course, from expected rises in passenger income. It was the sort of coordinated line improvement like British Rail’s Route Modernisation Programme that is impossible today because of the fragmentation of the railways (although, note, Sweden was the first country in the world to have a separate track authority but it remains state owned).
The nearest equivalent I could think of was East Anglia being provided with a series of new services and trains based around Norwich and Ipswich to get people off the roads. Indeed, compare this with Lincoln which I visited recently which is blessed with an irregular and patchy service that in recent years has deteriorated as the number and frequency of trains to key destinations have been reduced and journey times increased because of ridiculous stops at villages that no one uses. Through trains to Birmingham have been scrapped as have, unaccountably, several peak hour well used services. There is a suspicion locally that these reductions have been made to prevent numbers increasing so much that there would be pressure to acquire additional rolling stock.
The bean counters, however, have ensured that there is a barrier line at Lincoln station, though I had to clamber over it the other day as the man responsible for opening it – I had a valid ticket but I wanted to retain it as a receipt – was too busy chatting to the driver of the train on which I had arrived to notice me
The key issue is local control, and here I was also privy to another fascinating contrast. I was invited to speak at the annual general meeting of the Marlow Maidenhead Passengers Association and the other two presentations were by Chiltern and First Great Western. While there is no doubt that the situation on First Great Western has greatly improved since the dark days of the winter of 2007/8 when performance plummeted as a result of an unworkable timetable, shortage of rolling stock and a breakdown in relations between the operator and Network Rail. However, the presentation was focussed on ensuring the improvement was maintained and there was very little on investment apart from the refurbishment of Maidenhead station.
In contrast, Chiltern is embarking on all kinds of major investment programmes such as creating a link to Oxford, improving services to Birmingham and opening a couple of parkway stations. It can do this because it is blessed with a 20 year franchise and therefore acquiring land for car parking and other improvements is a worthwhile investment that poor old Great Western, with its maximum of seven years cannot dream of doing. Of course much of Chiltern’s investment is effectively paid for by the taxpayer because few of these schemes will actually pay for themselves entirely out of the fare box, and that is why the Treasury killed off the idea of any more long term franchises back in the mid 2000s. Nevertheless the energy which with the company, now owned of course by Deutsche Bahn, is pushing forward major improvements was noticeable.
Chiltern’s plans are not quite up to Skånetrafiken’s impressive efforts but that could only come about if we had regional governments that were able to invest substantial sums of money in infrastructure. And sadly, there is little sign that either major political party is prepared to allow such spending. As I mentioned in my previous column on Scotland, devolution of power invariably leads to greater expenditure since railways are locally always very popular.
Moreover, there is a real sense that in this country we are going backwards. Train companies are cutting back on providing meals, staff and ticket offices and installing barriers in narrow minded attempts to maximise revenue, all of which makes train travel more unpleasant. At Paddington, for example, the suburban ticket office – opened by Mark Hopwood when he was at Thames Trains and now closed by him, with a distinct suggestion of regret, now that he runs Great Western – has been replaced by a series of machines and one staff member trying to operate them. But even an experienced train passengers like me was unable to work out whether, at 6pm, I was entitled to an off peak return to Bourne End or merely an anytime one, with a price difference of £3. Moreover, when I went through the barrier at Platform 4 my ticket was rejected because it was an off peak ticket and the train I was taking was at Platform 2. This highlights the desperate need to simplify the fare structure of the railways especially if ticket office staff are now no longer available.
I know it is dangerous to harp on about things always being better on the other side of the Channel or indeed the Atlantic. There are many of the same problems as here with rail’s value not always being sufficiently appreciated. But as I found while researching my new book (Blood, Iron & Gold, how the railways transformed the world, to be published in September), there is genuinely a tradition on the Continent of seeing railways as a public service that merits investment irrespective of whether the narrow ‘business case’ stacks up or not. What is happening in Skåne could be replicated in half a dozen regions across the UK and, to my mind, would be a far better investment than a mega scheme of a high speed line. As I travel around the UK, it is clear that many A roads such as the A46 in Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire are increasingly becoming so congested that a proper train service – not just a single coach every couple of hours – would make a huge difference. Indeed, the extra subsidy required would largely pay for itself through the fare box if we had a more sensible way of financing the railways. Transport ministers and TOC managers should go to Skåne to see how investment in a rural railway can make a real difference both to the transport situation and the local economy.