Rail 597: Rail growth has slowed under privatisation

The Association of Train Operating Companies celebrated the opening of a new station in London, Mitcham Eastfields by issuing a press release pointing out that this was the 50th station reopening over the past decade – in other words since privatisation.

While that is, of course, a cause for celebration, the number of reopenings in the past decade is not so much a tribute to the dynamism and entrepreneurship of the private sector but rather a testimony to the difficulties of undertaking such investment within the current structure. The record over the past ten years compares very badly with the final ten years of British Rail’s tenure.

ATOC has helpfully provided a list of the stations and, in particular, the 173 miles of new lines which have reopened (or opened) during this period. It makes fascinating reading because it shows how they are concentrated in the devolved areas of the nation and how little has come from initiatives from within the privatised rail industry or the British – as opposed to Welsh or Scottish – government. Indeed, according to my reckoning it is just 0.3 miles!

Of the 173 miles of new lines cited by ATOC, 28 were opened within a year of privatisation, which means they were schemes left over from British Rail days. A further 68 miles consists of High Speed One, another BR project. That leaves just 77 of which a massive 64 is in either Wales or Scotland, much of it funded by the respective governments which both have a more proactive policy towards rail investment than the UK government.

That leaves just three schemes in England: Huddersfield – Halifax (funded by West Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive), Romsey – Eastleigh (a local initiative from Hampshire pushed along by the Strategic Rail Authority and the 0.3 miles of the Allington Chord over which there has been much fuss and which is actually the only line to be privately funded – if you count Network Rail as a private company.

Worse, the press release includes one line, the six miles of Walsall – Wolverhampton which Tom Harris, the rail minister, confirmed, in the same week that the release was issued, that it would be closed!

Even more instructive is a detailed comparison with the days when the dead hand of British Rail was at the tiller. Before privatisation disrupted the process, station reopening by BR was so common that it was barely newsworthy. For example, according to the A-Z of Reopenings produced by Railfuture, in the five years 1986 to 1990, 96 stations were opened twice the number that has been achieved in ten years since privatisation. In terms of line mileage, over 230 miles of lines were reopened for passenger service in the ten years up to 1996, 60 miles more than in the past decade. Moreover, there was no big scheme like High Speed One to skew the figures which shows that the railway was very dynamic, implementing a series of small incremental projects to gradually improve the railway, rather than launching any ‘big bangs’.

ATOC’s press release says that a further six new lines and 18 stations are in the pipeline, but this represents a fraction of BR’s output. It is easy to explain why reopenings have slumped. There is no overall organisation pushing for the expansion of the railway. Reopenings are far more expensive than they were under BR because of health and safety requirements, and the complexities of the fragmented industry. The TOCs are too short term, Network Rail has only recently been converted to the expansion cause and the government appears unwilling to support new railway lines.

And genuine private sector initiatives are stymied by the complexities and cost involved. For example, Kilbride Community Rail, which is seeking to reopen lines that would be partly funded by the development value of the land (see Rail 590 for a feature by Nigel Harris) has met with formidable obstacles in dealing with all the various players. Under a unified railway, such schemes would be much easier to get off the ground.

So why exactly has ATOC put out this press release which implies that its members can claim credit for the growing railway? Normally ATOC is very clear about the fact that its role is narrowly circumscribed and that it is really a trade association of its members, rather than an organisation that is lobbying for the wider industry. Yet here it is, publishing a press release about investments which have nothing to do with its members.

Of course that is not really ATOC’s fault. If we had an industry that was structured in such a way that genuine entrepreneurship were encouraged, then it would pay operators to invest in new lines but under the current franchising system that is clearly impossible. It is commendable that ATOC is promoting the railway but unfortunately, as ever, the information reveals the limitations of the way that the industry is structured, rather than highlighting its successes.

Station access study is a ‘no brainer’ – so why hasn’t it happened before?

The launch of a relatively modest little scheme in Derby a couple of weeks ago was rather surprisingly graced by none other than the Transport Secretary, Ruth Kelly, herself. It was the announcement of the Station Travel Plan Initiative which aims to encourage rail users to use more environmentally friendly forms of transport when travelling to and from stations.

The pilot scheme involves 31 stations across the country which will be the subject of detailed surveys of how passengers access the station. Most important, too, the surveys will also examine why people do not use trains and whether better access would help them. For example, there is considerable evidence that many people will not take the train if they fear that the car park will be full when they get to the station and, instead, drive all the way.

Ms Kelly’s presence was commendable but while it may have suggested that government money was going into the scheme, in fact this is not the case as, strangely, the money is coming from the Rail Standards & Safety Board under its sustainable transport initiative.

. Instead, in the awful jargon, it is a ‘multi-stakeholder initiative developed by the Association of Train Operating Companies’. Actually, the truth is that Stephen Joseph, the head of the Campaign for Better Transport the Campaign for Better Transport – the ghastly new name for the organisation that used to go by the even sillier one of Transport 2000 – has been badgering the Department for some time to take up this issue. Ms Kelly was gracious enough to mention this at the press conference and applauded his efforts.

But why oh why does it take a very small voluntary organisation to push for an utterly worthy scheme that is, frankly, a no-brainer, and for an obscure part of the rail industry to fund it? Surely, there are two major players who should have ensured that this sort of thing happened years ago, the train operators themselves and the government. The fact that the operators do not fund work like this shows the limitation of their horizons. Surely, if they were really the go-getting leading edge organisations they claim to be, they would be trying to boost passenger numbers with research like this and, as a result, then developing plans to make their stations more accessible.

However, if the train operators fail to show sufficient initiative to carry out this work, then surely the Department for Transport should ensure that this type of work was written into franchise agreements. Crucially, attracting more people onto the railway through better access should be self-financing, if properly assessed. Yet, somehow, while operators tend to want to do ‘business cases’ on the merest small project, they seem to miss the big picture.

There was, of course, a big irony about Ms Kelly’s presence. Why should the Department be interested in boosting access to railway stations when its stated policy is to be ‘modally agnostic’?

Stephen Joseph thought he detected a positive aspect to modal agnosticism. Local authorities, he said, were being told by the Department for Transport that the policy of meant they should not just automatically consider road schemes when assessing transport projects but look across all modes including rail. I wish I could share his optimism. A policy of modal agnosticism, an expression which apparently Ruth Kelly does not like (so why does she not change the policy?) means that transport providers should not do anything to encourage people out of their cars – virtually the precise quote I extracted from Tom Harris in the interview published in Rail 594) because they must be able to choose their method of transport. That ‘choice’ agenda is at the heart of New Labour policy in other areas such as health and education but its contradictions are particularly exposed in transport.

By the way, in the next issue I will be issuing my customary end of term report on the performance of the various players in the rail industry over the past year. Do send me your suggestions on who deserves bouquets or brickbats.

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