It’s been a busy time for rail announcements, following on from the publication last week of the Government’s rail strategy, Connecting people: a strategic vision for rail [https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/663124/rail-vision-web.pdf], which itself was just a few weeks after the launch of a long-term plan, called In Partnership for Britain’s Prosperity [http://www.britainrunsonrail.co.uk/files/docs/one-plan.pdf], to change and improve Britain’s railway.
Working together, the partnership railway of the public and private sectors has committed to securing almost £85bn of additional economic benefits to the country. The plan contains four commitments which will see rail companies strengthen their economic contribution to the country, improve customers’ satisfaction, boost the communities it serves and create more and better jobs in rail.
I welcome this plan, because there is an urgent need to re‐state and define the railway, and the role it can play in meeting Britain’s transport needs. A recent report of the National Infrastructure Commission downplayed the potential of the railway and there is a need for the industry to fight back. We are not the industry of ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ and the vintage steam engines which cast an image of a bygone age and dignified decline, nor are we in the image of the RMT who, while advancing bogus claims about safety, obstruct change to a thriving future with more, and better‐rewarded staff, who constantly say when asked that they enjoy working in the industry.
We are not locked in the past. In three years’ time, there will be over 5,700 new carriages running on the railway and 6,400 extra services a week – more seats and a more comfortable, reliable daily commute for hundreds of thousands of people. Stations are being modernised with longer platforms to accommodate longer trains. In two years, almost 180 stations will be improved – creating more attractive gateways to towns and villages across Britain.
Signalling and track are being updated, so that the capacity of the network is improved almost always inside railway boundaries, which of course cannot be said for new motorways, which gouge their way through our precious countryside. For example, the proposed East–West Rail link from Oxford to Cambridge will do infinitely less environmental damage than the road now being mooted. Electrification will be completed in the congested areas at much less cost than on the Great Western, which was over‐specified and badly planned. This will not be repeated.
The future will be made better as new forms of traction using battery power and hydrogen come on line. Staff training is intense on much of the railway, to equip staff to give a better, more courteous, and more caring manner in dealing with passengers.
Freight trains are often capable of running at 75mph but are unable to do so very often because of congestion. Performance can be improved by providing longer passing loops, some better track layouts, improved signalling, ease of access to ports – a major source of traffic – and the creation of more freight terminals.
The railway is also safer than it ever has been, and requires less subsidy than most railways in the rest of Europe. Investment from the public and private sectors is underpinning this long-term plan to change and improve the railway, but money from fares is vitally important too.
Our railway is a crucial public service, so it is only fair that politicians make decisions on where money for improvements comes from. Alongside public funding, the private sector invested £925m in the railway last year, for example on new trains and IT. Government decides on the balance invested by taxation and how much by the passenger, and therefore the level of fares.
It does this directly where passengers have less choice about how they travel. Here, government increases prices in line with the Retail Prices Index. Indirectly, Government also has a role in setting the fares train operators control, because rail franchises are expected to make certain payments back to the Exchequer as stipulated by their contracts.
All these changes I have described can be brought about within ten years, with very little impact upon the public. By then the railway can be unrecognisable, with modern, new trains and staff who feel engaged in something worthwhile.
As a recent visit to Crossrail – built to last 200 years – showed me, the railway is technically alert and can provide a modern miracle. This is a crucial time for our country, and the railway will play a critical role in our success.
* Lord Bradshaw is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords, and a former General Manager of British Rail’s Western Region. He was Professor of Transport Management at University of Salford from 1986–92, a special adviser to the House of Commons Transport Select Committee from 1992-97, and is a fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford.