Rail 974: Optimism hard to find; and rail’s big man

Of necessity, a New Year requires a modicum of optimism. Having done 50 or more media interviews over the past six months on industrial strife on the railways, peppered with references to the effects of Covid and of the downturn in commuting, I am keen to tease out some positives to look forward to in 2023.

There was, of course, one stunning success in 2022 and that is the Elizabeth Line (yes, Okehampton was great but in the scale of things….). Even though the line is still not yet running right through between Shenfield and Reading, it is possible to make many of the longer journeys that are transformational. Services currently run from Abbey Wood (aka Thamesmead) out to Heathrow and Reading and from Shenfield to Paddington, and the line attracting regularly 700,000 users per day. Astonishingly, it has become the busiest train route in Britain according to the Evening Standard, carrying more than the London Overground and major franchises such South Western Trains. (The Standard had to admit it was beaten by Govia Thameslink but pointed out that it encompasses four different franchises). Certainly it is an undoubted success, beating predictions at this stage by 200,000 passengers per day and it seemingly will not be long before it hits a million on a particular day.

As ever with these big projects, when they are ultimately successful, everyone forgets the cost overruns and the delays. Who now is bothered that Crossrail eventually ran up a bill of nearly £20bn, rather than the £16bn it was originally expected to cost? Yet, any discussion of future projects like this will be overshadowed by the gloomsters, moaning that it will be tantamount to writing a blank cheque. Certainly the appalling planning and management of HS2 is not helping the cause of the railway but that is a very different type of project, and one which was always fundamentally unsound.

I will discuss the problem with HS2 in a later article but here I want to focus on the positive impact of the Elizabeth Line. The root of its success is that it fulfilled a very basic need, the relief of overcrowding on the Tube. The 700,000 daily passengers did not come from nowhere. Most must previously have travelled on the nightmarish Central Line or other Tube journeys. Many must, like I do, occasionally divert onto a slightly longer journey just for the sheer joy of being able to travel fast and in comfort under London. The very fact that it is not merely a modernised version of the existing Tube, but rather is a proper mainline train which happens to run under the capital underlies its success.

In a rational world, therefore, the lesson would be learnt. The second Crossrail line would be in development, rather than mothballed, and similar innovatory rail schemes would be being drawn up in other major British cities. Since 1969, China has developed metro systems in 46 cities and has built a remarkable 262 lines, with more due to come on stream in the New Year. Crossrail as I still want to call it, took 13 years to build and a generation in gestation.

The problem is that railways are always looked at as a cost rather than as a catalyst for development and prosperity. Crossrail has been a game changer, and the lucky people living on or near the line have benefitted enormously. We know about this effect. In urban areas it is almost universal. Look how the London Overground, a step change transformation from the appalling Silverlink, has completely changed the nature of parts of the capital like Hackney which was, until then, ill served by public transport.

I was reminded of how rail is served badly by narrow-minded economists when I bumped into Cynthia Wentworth, who has spent much of her life campaigning for rail improvements in Alaska. She told the sad story of the abandonment of commuter services in Anchorage and the decline of main line passenger services on the near 500 mile main line. The problem, she said, was that the State, which now owns the railways, always expects any investment to be profitable, having never understood the wider benefits of having a rail network.

Yet, America was built on its rail network which, as I have mentioned recently, consisted of 254,000 by the outbreak of World War One, representing construction of 8 miles of line every day for a period of 84 years. The railway, in other words, was the economic driver behind the growth of US capitalism, and yet now ‘has to earn its way’.  Similar thinking still pervades the Treasury and even elements of the Department for Transport in the UK today.
There is much more to say on the economics of the railway but no space, so let’s just hope that those who understand the railway will get a bigger say in 2023. Indeed, if 2023 is not to be a worse annus horribilis than 2022 then all hands must be on the pumps from government ministers to platform staff. Moreover, those drawing up plans for the future structure must realise the only solution is for the re-creation of an integrated railway under state ownership and to do away with all the pretend capitalism nonsense that will only add to cost and chaos. More on this during the year! And Mystic Wolmar’s predictions for 2023 will be in the next issue. Meanwhile listen to my new podcast, which has plenty about rail. Just Google Christian Wolmar’s Calling All Stations.



The importance of Adrian Shooter, the Edward Watkin of the 21st century


Adrian Shooter, who sadly died in December having contracted that cruellest of all illnesses, Motor Neurone Disease, was the only true railway entrepreneur to emerge out of the mess of privatisation. He was the only one to make the privatised system deliver the investment that it had promised thanks to a combination of his ability to obtain support from politicians and a genuine commercial flair that enabled him to see opportunities where no one else did. He was the Edward Watkin of the 21st century, a man who put forward crazy schemes that critics thought were unrealistic, only to realise them in the face of adversity. That is why there is a statue at Marylebone to celebrate his achievements, and it is pleasing that at least he lived long enough to see it erected.

Steve Murphy, who worked with him at Chiltern Railways for a decade, recalls how he wanted to double a near 30 miles stretch of traffic to enable a half hourly service to Birmingham: ‘It was a scheme that no one thought was doable. There was no money around in the early 2000s and even if there had been, it would have been low priority’. Yet, through a combination of clever lobbying and bloody mindedness, the yellow diggers were at work within a couple of years.

There was plenty more: the Parkway station at Warwick, new trains that were the first to break the 1,000+ hiatus post privatisation, the chord to link Oxford  and the Wrexham open access service that only failed because of over rigid rules designed to prevent abstraction.  All this was achieved because he had wangled a 20 year franchise out of the government, enabling a programme of investment and extensions that was not possible within the usual seven year time frame.

Of course, as I chided him when we used to mull over the state of the railways with a pint at the excellent Victoria and Albert in Marylebone, much of the money for the investment came from the public sector. This was definitely not solely a private enterprise, though the involvement of John Laing and 3i in the franchise was helpful, but a joint venture between the public and private sectors. Ultimately all these improvements had to be sanctioned and mostly paid for by government, but that is not to take away from Shooter’s achievements. It was thanks to him that the moribund Chiltern franchise, which bidders had largely shunned because there seemed no prospect of making it grow.

And of course, it was not just Chiltern. A decade ago, Shooter founded Vivarail buying up a a fleet of redundant sub-surface Underground trains which with their excellent bodies and bogeys, could be relatively cheaply transformed into diesel or battery trains – or a combination of both. There have been several successful uses of these trains, from the Isle of Wight to south Wales, as they can be economically introduced on branch lines.  It is hardly surprising that just as Watkin’s cross Channel ambitions faded when he suffered a stroke during the construction of the Great Central, Vivarail, with Shooter’s involvement due to his illness, has now gone into administration.

Shooter, with his impressive height and his confident manner, could be a somewhat daunting figure but he was always charm itself to me, even though inevitably there were disagreements over privatisation. But he also had a great sense of humour. Murphy recounts the story of a signal failure at Marylebone which stopped all the trains. Shooter called for Dick Fearn, at the time the Network Rail manager responsible for Chiltern, to come to explain what had happened. Fearn set out various possibilities, such as damage by a digger or degradation caused by the weather. Shooter said nothing, and let Fearn splutter away promising ‘no stone would be unturned’. Then Shooter reached under the table and pulled out a transparent plastic pouch containing an electrocuted rat. The rodent had somehow got past the brushes designed to protect the cabling and had fried itself chewing through a wire. ’That’s the rat which got through’. Fearn, another railwayman who has enjoyed an illustrious career, had no answer but to his credit, has retold this story many times.

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