Rail 551: Has Network Rail changed its spots?

Everyone’s familiar with the double standards applied by government to road and rail schemes, but CHRISTIAN WOLMAR has detected signs that the pace of line and station reopenings could be picking up.

IT’S rough getting between Swindon and Gloucester. On the railways, the trains have to negotiate a 14-mile stretch which was singled in the 1970s in some misguided cost-cutting exercise initiated by British Rail under pressure from the Treasury. It is now a terrible bottleneck, frequently delaying trains.

On the roads, there is also a bottleneck, what a local Tory MP recently called a ‘missing link’ – a three-mile part of the A417 ten miles from Gloucester which is not dual carriageway and causes traffic jams.

This gap was the subject of a lengthy debate in Parliament on October 12 prompted by that Tory MP, Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, who argued that the lack of an adequate road was a severe barrier to economic development in the region and that the missing link causes traffic jams and accidents.

He pointed out that you could drive from Palermo in southern Italy to Scotland on dual carriageway roads with the exception of this three-mile gap (though he failed to explain why you’d want to undertake this 3,000 mile journey via Gloucester!). There is much rat-running through pretty Cotswold villages in an effort to avoid the A417 and, when there is a diversion, massive 44-tonne lorries have to negotiate their way through these bucolic idylls.

There is a reason why the road has never been improved in the area. It runs up the sharp Brockworth Hill, and has to negotiate a 275- degree bend, so any improvement would be expensive. There have been suggestions of a tunnel, but that was rejected, and now there is a plan to dual the section largely along the existing alignment.

But currently it is not on the Highways Agency’s list of priorities and that is why Clifton-Brown obtained the debate. The response from the Roads Minister, Stephen Ladyman, could not have been more helpful and supportive: “The government and I recognise the importance of improving this key strategic route,” he smarmed, a rather curious phrasing as I thought he was part of the government.

He went on over paragraphs and paragraphs of Hansard about how various things had been tried, how, regretfully, they had been rejected, and how the Highways Agency had now been asked to look at the whole area again. “That work will not be constrained by what has already been considered, and the agency will adopt a holistic approach to ensure that all options are thoroughly explored,” he said.

Can you imagine old Alistair Darling or even his successor, Douglas Alexander, talking about an expensive rail scheme in this almost loving way? Interestingly, in the middle of the parliamentary debate another Tory MP, Lawrence Robertson (Tewkesbury), intervened to say that the road link was particularly important because rail services to the area were so poor. And indeed they are. The bottleneck on the railways is, in many ways, far worse than that on the roads. Only one train can ever enter the single-line section, which takes 14 minutes to cover and therefore limits capacity to a total of four trains an hour.

Any delay or breakdown instantly causes chaos. This happened in the summer because the line is the main diversionary route when the Severn Tunnel – where the battle against According is permanent and precarious – is closed. When this happened in August, according to RAIL reader Philip Jones who travels regularly to Stroud, the result “was true pandemonium at Swindon as all the South Wales trains as well as the regular trains (which include freight) had to share the bottleneck.”

So contrast the lengthy debate on the need to improve the road, and the measured and courteous response from the minister, with his reply to a question from David Drew, the Stroud MP who has campaigned energetically to improve local rail services. On September 12 2005, he asked Ladyman about the chances of redoubling the track and was given short shrift: “The SRA made an assessment of the demand for rail travel on the Swindon-Gloucester corridor as part of its recently-published Great Western Route Utilisation Strategy (RUS), and concluded that the infrastructure was adequate to support the forecast demand for the duration of the RUS period (to 2012).” He added that the issue would be reassessed by Network Rail, when signalling renewals for the route became due, some time between 2012 and 2017.

This was pretty dishonest, actually, since the RUS said that its terms of reference ‘precluded infrastructure schemes’. The message, though, was pretty clear. None of this is anything to do with me and in any case it’s all too expensive. So should we conclude that, as usual, rail seems to be losing out and the perennial love affair of government with the roads is continuing.

Well, this is where it gets interesting, and the news is surprisingly positive. When I approached NR, I fully expected that the company would give me the same brush-off and there was no hope for this scheme. However, what I discovered suggests that Network Rail really has changed its spots. It says the scheme is currently in the first stage of the GRIP (the eight-stage Guide to Railway Investment Projects) and a feasibility study is being carried out. That might not sound very encouraging but, according to the company, work could start as early as 2008/09. Apparently NR realises the importance of the line, not least as a diversionary route given that the Severn Tunnel is always going to be a somewhat dodgy piece of infrastructure.

Network Rail will not actually use the words ‘definite’ or ‘commitment’ but the tone of what it is saying suggests there is definite hope for the campaigners. There are, of course, a whole host of difficulties ahead. No costing is available so far and the work may prove to be more difficult than expected. When the track was singled, it was moved to the middle because of concerns about weak embankments, and both moving the track and shoring up the embankments will add to the costs. When Chiltern and Railtrack redoubled just nine miles of plain line track between Bicester and Aynho junctions three years ago, the bill was a staggering £60m.Therefore, it would not take much for a relatively modest scheme like Swindon to Kemble to reach three figures quite easily.

Then there is the issue of compensation, the craziest aspect of the current fragmented structure of the railways. NR has to pay compensation for disruption to operators when it is carrying out work to make their services run more efficiently. How mad is that? Yet, by then, First Great Western is likely to be struggling with its onerous franchise, making the company desperate to wrest any revenue it can from NR.

And even when the line does get redoubled, Great Western is likely to want to see a reduction in its premium payments for running any extra trains that would be allowed by this enhanced capacity as they may not pay for themselves.

Network Rail claims it can carry out these enhancements because of the efficiency savings it made, worth £200m, plus another pot of £200m it created for small projects. They are vital to a growing railway, sometimes more important than big projects, because they represent easy gains, or ‘low-hanging fruit’ in the business jargon, for quite significant capacity increases. The successful completion of many of these small and medium-size schemes would demonstrate that NR is serious about delivering enhancements in a way that seemed out of the question a year or two ago. British Rail could undertake these schemes in a much cheaper and simpler way, because the railway was much more straightforward and there weren’t all these ‘stakeholders’.

Of course, its critics would argue that BR was in the business of retrenching rather than expanding, but in its latter days it did at least look at the possibility of expanding the railways. The pace of station and line reopenings slowed dramatically after privatisation and now, at last, there is hope that it will speed up again. There are dozens of worthwhile schemes with strong business cases that only require the will and a bit of cash. For example, I was recently sent the proposal to reopen Kenilworth station between Coventry and Leamington Spa which would provide three times the amount of benefits compared with its £4m cost. Network Rail’s ability to bring these schemes to fruition is an important test of whether the current structure is a viable way to run the railway.

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