A blueprint for Britain’s railways

Gloom descended as commuters found that their fares would be rising by 8 per cent in January.

This followed hot on the heels of news from the Office of Rail Regulation that overcrowding was getting worse – hardly a surprise for most passengers given that rail use has increased by almost half in the past decade and there are barely any extra services.

To cap it all, there was now talk of Europe determining fares on the UK railways, which would remove any chance of British passengers having any influence over rail policy.

All this came on top of the government-sponsored report published earlier this year by Sir Roy McNulty suggesting that the £5bn taxpayers’ bill for Britain’s railways was unaffordable. His report found that thanks to inefficiency, much of it the result of the railways’ fragmentation following privatisation, they were costing 40 per cent more than similar railways abroad.

Surprisingly, it is actually not all bad news on the railways. The government’s claim that there is record investment in them is actually true.Huge schemes – such as upgrading Thameslink, which runs between towns to the north and south of the capital; creating Crossrail, the new east–west tunnel under London; and the rebuilding of stations such as King’s Cross, Paddington and Reading, each one a megaproject in itself costing hundreds of millions of pounds – are all under way.

As if that were not enough, there are even bigger plans on the horizon, such as the electrification of the Great Western line, the replacement of all the old High Speed Trains with a new Japanese-designed supertrain, and – the granddaddy of them all – the £32bn high speed line to link London with Birmingham and, eventually, Leeds and Manchester.

This is all well and good, but the problem is that there is no overall vision for the railways. That’s hardly surprising given that the quasi-privatisation of the mid-1990s left us with a fragmented railway with more than 20 operators, a separate company in the form of Network Rail that is in charge of the track and signalling, and which exists in a no man’s land between the private and public sectors, and a Department for Transport whose civil servants specify in great detail how the private companies operate their train services.

As a result, vast sums are spent on particular schemes, mostly concentrated around London – but no one is co-ordinating all this effort or thinking about what he railways will look like in, say, 2050 or even 2100. Take HS2, the proposed new high speed line running through the spine of England. It’s a project that is likely to absorb all the spare cash for rail investment for the next couple of decades, and yet ultimately will help only a small proportion of Britain’s rail travellers.

Commuters in London and other major cities, long-distance travellers heading east or west, and passengers on the overcrowded lines to the south coast will not benefit a jot and may find their own services do not improve as all the money has gone to HS2. Instead of a French-style grand projet, what we need is a modern railway for all of Britain.

Even though the railways have been effectively controlled by the government since nationalisation in 1948, no government has ever sat down and tried to set out a map of the service that Britain needs. That is why some towns, such as, say, Middlesbrough or Grimsby have no daily direct services to London, while other similar-sized places, such as Woking and Crewe, have dozens.

While it would be impossible to accommodate every place’s needs, let’s at least have a railway that tries to cater for as many people as possible. Those neglected cross-country routes and branch lines – which a report last week showed have seen a huge increase in popularity, with journey numbers on some lines in Cornwall and Derbyshire having almost doubled in the last three years – need to be brought up to standard, and with timetables that make them viable rather than financial basket-cases. (It was a trick of those who closed railway lines in the sixties to run down services so badly that no one ever used the railway, giving them the excuse to shut it permanently.)

In Spain, the high speed network is being drawn up on a framework designed to ensure 90 per cent of the population is within 50kms of a high-speed station. A start towards a railway for all could be made with electrification. Electric trains are cleaner, more comfortable, accelerate faster, and are less environmentally damaging.

Commendably, the government is committed to electrifying part of the Great Western line – from London to Swansea – and the Liverpool–Manchester line, but that will still leave swathes of the network, notably the Midland Main Line between London and Sheffield and many commuter services in provincial towns, operated by smelly old diesels.

A modern railway should, too, mean a better one. Yet, many of the so called ‘improvements’ on Britain’s railways in recent years have been, well, nothing of the sort.

The installation of inconvenient barriers staffed by security guards with no remit to help passengers at mainline stations used by long-distance passengers carrying baggage is just one such example.

While on the subject of baggage, modern coaches, too, often have far less space for suitcases than their older predecessors which also had the simple amenity of windows being aligned with seats, rather than views being blocked by bulkheads.

Catering, too, has been in sad decline with the demise of the dining car and the replacement on some lines of buffets with trolleys. Of course, we cannot expect a return to the days of three-course meals served by white-jacketed stewards, but providing good meals is surely part of the service. And that’s the magic word: service. So much of today’s railway seems to be run for the convenience of those providing it. Yes, of course the technology of trains will improve in the next 50 or 100 years, just as it has in the past; but, the railway of 2010 will still essentially consist of transporting people in large boxes very fast on a pair of tracks.

Therefore, it is how passengers are treated where the biggest change could take place. It is, for example, amazing that on large stretches of track it is impossible to make a mobile phone call.

While phones may be irritating for some passengers, they have become essential for modern life, and the railways have missed a trick by not ensuring continuous service.

Take ticketing, too. When London passengers were, at last, able to use their Oyster cards on nearly all rail journeys within the capital, it led to a vast increase in numbers using the railways. Surely, by 2050, all passengers across the whole network should be able to flash a card at a reader to validate their journey. That would also mean simplifying the current ridiculously complex fares system.

None of this can be achieved without the creation of a large railway organisation, separate from government and staffed with career railway managers who would be able to make decisions in the long-term interests of the railway and its passengers.

Forget, for the moment, the debate about whether this should be in the private or public sector, but concentrate instead on the fact that nearly every country with a large railway industry has just such a railway organisation, whether it is DB in Germany, SNCF in France or Indian Railways. The US is a rare exception and its sparse passenger services are the result, while Japan differs from the norm in that it has three major private rail companies, all profitable.

Britain lost such a co-ordinating body when British Rail was broken up into more than a hundred companies at privatisation, and has paid a heavy price in terms of a railway that has lost its way. When the current mad fad for consultancies, outsourcing and fragmentation has run its course, the reconstruction and revival of Britain’s railways could get under way, stimulated by an organisation which we could call British Railways.

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