This is the new age of the train. The railways had a generally bad 20th century, being outfought and ultimately replaced by the car and the aeroplane, but now in the 21st they are enjoying a renaissance that is spreading across the world.
Here in Britain, where the railway was invented and first developed 170 years ago, people are rediscovering the joys of train travel. The days of slam door trains and smoky carriages are long gone with Britain boasting a modern fleet of trains and in many cases stations to match. We have even joined the high speed era, albeit with a short branch line to the Channel Tunnel and Lille where there is the junction for Paris and Brussels, and record numbers of passengers are using the rail network, which is how enjoying improved punctuality with fewer than one in ten trains being significantly late.
It is a far cry from the nadir of the Beeching era and its aftermath when whole swathes of the system were closed for reasons which, even discounting the benefit of hindsight, failed to take account of future transport needs. Over the years many of those cuts have been reversed, with over 300 stations and 300 miles of line reopened. The pace has slowed somewhat in recent years because the complexities of privatisation have meant that with the demise of British Rail no one is in charge of thinking strategically about the rail network and there are so many ‘stakeholders’ involved that the whole business has become far more expensive and unwieldy.
However, by identifying specific towns that ought to be reconnected and lines that should be reopened, the Association of Train Operating Companies has tried to give renewed momentum to the process. While not wishing to pour cold water on the idea, this latest bit of canny PR on the part of the train operators has to be put in context.
Shocked by the series rail accidents in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and stung by criticism of the poor performance of the network following the Hatfield accident in 2000, Labour has already spent huge sums on the railway, partly because under the system it inherited, the regulator determined the level of expenditure. In fairness, though, Labour has, belatedly, endorsed the idea of investing in the railway, reversing its previous strategy of refusing to consider electrification or a new high speed line. Indeed, these are exciting, heady even, times for the railways with so many initiatives and investment plans that it is difficult to believe that we are in the midst of the worst postwar recession.
We have, in no particular order, plans to electrify the two main diesel lines, the Great Western from London Bristol and the Midland Main Line from London to Sheffield (uncosted), new trains to replace the existing ageing InterCity 125 fleet (2.5bn), revamped stations at Reading and Birmingham (over £1bn), an expanded Thameslink service linking a vast array of towns to the immediate north and south of London (£5bn) and Crossrail, the tunnel under London creating through services between east and west, on which has just started (£16bn). Add in a few smaller schemes, plus the East London Line, effectively a new underground line as well as routine maintenance and renewal on the national rail network, and it is clear that spending plans on the railways has already undergone a step change in recent years.
But, and there had to be a ‘but’, in the midst of all this activity, the rail industry is in a state of crisis. While, for once, the government seems to have understood the need for stable long term investment and has, in Lord Adonis, a genuine rail enthusiast with an understanding of the industry as Transport Secretary, in the short term there is deep uncertainty about the financing of the system.
The root of the problems is the high cost of running today’s railway. Far from, as promised, cutting the cost of the railway, privatisation has led to a bureaucratic and expensive system, with the private companies ever at the mercy of ministerial interference, with subsidy now at around £5bn per year compared with the measly £1bn (in today’s money) which two decades ago British Rail used to receive in an average year. Moreover, the cost of every scheme seems to go up daily. When Railtrack was privatised, for example, Thameslink was costed at well under £1bn for example.
This huge cost means there is trouble on the line ahead. The system of franchising out groups of lines to private operators is predicated on the assumption that passenger numbers and, crucially, revenue will keep on growing in order to pay back large premium payments to the government rather than subsidies which had been the norm. The system is far too complicated to set out in a short article – privatisation has not delivered the transparency which its architects promised – but suffice to say that unless there is a rapid economic turnaround, several train companies are likely to throw the towel in or beg for more money to bail them out. Already National Express is already in discussions with the Department for Transport over the future of its East Coast franchise and several other operators are known to be in the red or heading there.
Combined with this is the issue of fares. The government is squeezing premiums out of the operators, rather than paying subsidy, because it wants to reduce the taxpayer’s share of the cost of the railway from its current two thirds to under a half, putting more of the burden on passengers. But fares are already higher than in most of Europe and while there are bargains available for passengers booking in advance, the system has become utterly unfathomable for all but the most zealous train enthusiast.
To obtain cheap fares, people have to book in advance and the system is so obscure that people can end up sitting next to someone else who has paid a tenth of their fare. It is all part of a process that is steadily making train travel more and more passenger unfriendly as a result of the cuts. Ticket barriers are being thrown up in the unlikeliest stations causing inconvenience to long distance passengers carrying luggage, catering facilities are being reduced, ticket offices closing and, as health and safety rules are applied to the letter, announcements rain down on hapless travellers.
So today’s railway is an odd contrast of the modern and sleek combined with the depredations of penny-pinching operators suffering from the credit crunch and heavy handed inspectors ready to charge hapless passengers. Therefore the idea of reopening a few branch lines while superficially attractive, does not fit in with the economic realities of today’s railways especially as it will not be the private sector stumping up the initial cost nor the subsidy needed to provide the trains. These branch lines will not serve the purposes they once did, of taking people from one village to the next, or even up to the market town. That age is gone and therefore spending £500m of a limited pot, rather than on, say, extra commuter trains or lengthening platforms, may not be wise.
There is, though, another way: a specially created company, Kilbride Community Rail, has been looking at paying for the reopening of lines by being allowed to cash in the potential profits from local developments which will sell for more if they are on a rail line. That would be genuinely entrepreneurial thinking, something which, despite privatisation is sadly lacking in today’s railway which has many of the failings of old British Rail – government interference, lack of initiative, poor service – combined with the rapaciousness of profit maximising private operators companies.
So while we are entering a new age of the train, nothing on the railways is easy or can be done simply. A new government therefore will face a struggle to keep Britain’s much loved railway on the tracks. It will have to try to cut a swathe through the bureaucracy, reduce ministerial interference and yet, at the same time, continue to deliver improved performance and fulfil all the investment plans set out above. Already there are murmurings that the Tories would cut Crossrail and while they have promised a high speed line, it will only be delivered on the basis of cutting back on expenditure elsewhere in the railway.
The railway has a fantastic future. It is excellent at intercity travel, especially with high speed lines, commuter services and carrying bulk freight, and, in an ideal world, the high level of investment required for expansion would be accepted across all parties as necessary to build up Britain’s creaking infrastructure. As ever, though, the railway is at the mercy of politicians whose short term interests may not coincide with its long term needs.
Christian Wolmar’s history of the railways in Britain, Fire and Steam, is published by Atlantic Books, £8 99.