Is there no hope for rail users?

The news that Connex is cutting services into London Bridge to ensure better punctuality must seem like the last straw for many London commuters. Over the past few weeks, rail passengers have suffered from a series of blows, including a slowdown in much of the network because of the fear of rails buckling in the heat and the amazing uncoordinated closure of four main lines out of London to carry out repairs.

And now they face having to cram into fewer trains or even, in some cases, taking the Tube back to stations where they used to alight but will now whiz past on the train. It must seem like madness to them.

In fact – and this will be difficult to accept for passengers directly affected – Connex’s decision is actually pretty sensible and it is the sort of approach that should have been adopted years ago. Indeed, had it been, Connex might not have been booted out its two franchises.

The trouble with the rail network, particularly for London commuters, is that there simply is not enough capacity to deal with the demand from 430,000 people coming into the capital every day for work. And the way that the industry was initially privatised made it much worse. Once the running of trains was handed over to private operators, they were encouraged to run as many services as they could and there was nothing to stop them putting on more than the network could cope with. They paid virtually nothing for the extra use of the track and apart from having to pay for the driver, any additional passengers meant more profit. In the first six years after privatisation, an additional 15 per cent in train mileage was put on by the operators.

The network simply could not cope. Consultants advised Railtrack at the time that for every 1 per cent extra train services, delays would go up by 2.5 per cent. But there was no mechanism to stop the operators from simply putting on more trains. That partly explains why under British Rail, around one train in ten was late, and now it is double that, one train in five.

The real question, however, is why has the rail network been allowed to get into such a bad state that it cannot cope with demand. It is too easy to point the finger at British Rail’s supposed underinvestment. In fact, while indeed the Treasury always tried to cut back the rail investment budget, British Rail had undertook a programme of ‘total route modernisation’ which would have seen all the suburban lines around London upgraded within a couple of decades. The only one to be completed was the Chiltern services out of Marylebone where, not surprisingly, commuters enjoy a much better service than elsewhere and, consequently, where growth has been the highest on the network.

Privatisation disrupted that programme and caused a hiatus in investment for which commuters are now paying. Instead of a reasonably steady stream of investment in the infrastructure, the flow was disrupted when Railtrack, eager to maximise profits for shareholders, was privatised in 1996.

Now, the new Network Rail, created as a not for profit company to replace Railtrack, is aware of the need for investment and is spending money at an unprecedented rate. However, little of that is getting through to rail passengers because under the current structure of the industry, major investment schemes are too expensive to implement even though the railways are getting more money than they have ever received – £3.8bn, more than twice BR ever received. Therefore plans to create longer platforms for services out of Waterloo and for a complete upgrade of the London to Brighton line, put forward a couple of years ago by the Strategic Rail Authority, have been quietly dumped.

Roger Ford, technical editor of Modern Railways, has calculated that investment schemes on the railways cost three times what they used to under British Rail, even ignoring inflation increased. He says that what is now widely known in the industry as the Ford factor is the result of ‘a combination of the use of contractors, unnecessary safety requirements and the complexity of the privatised railway.’

Unable to spend money to run longer trains or increase speeds on the track through improvements, this leaves little choice for operators other than to try to trim services in order to improve punctuality. With Eurostar trains now taking a different route out of London from Waterloo, using the Gravesend line, Connex had was forced reduce services to make room for the international trains.

There is some good news in the offing for beleaguered commuters but again the botched way the industry was broken up and sold has delayed these improvements. Both Connex and South West Trains are getting new train fleets but many of these cannot be introduced because no one told Railtrack that they would need much more power. So many of them will remain sitting in sidings until the end of next year at the earliest. In the longer term, in 2007 when the rest of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link opens, there should, too, be direct services from Kent using the high speed line. But so far the government has not agreed to stump up the £200m needed to pay for those services.

At least, the Strategic Rail Authority, too, has begun to grasp the nettle and will, in future, prevent operators from running too many trains, particularly those aimed more at grabbing business off rivals than providing a better service.

Therefore, Connex’s cutbacks may be the first of other similar reductions. Moreover, some of these may be forced on the industry. Richard Bowker, the chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, knows that without considerable extra sums of money, the kind of improvements commuters need cannot be delivered. Long term projects to relieve congestion such as Thameslink 2000 and Crossrail have effectively been put on the back burner, despite vague government murmurings supporting them.

Next spring, he will go to the Treasury seeking more money for the railways. Given the demands of health and education at a time when growth in the economy is slowing down, he is likely to come out empty handed. If he does, then service cutbacks are likely to become a regular feature of every autumn and spring timetable for years to come.

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