No end to the great rail fiasco

Click to follow
RARELY HAS there been an issue which has united inveterate complainers, uncommitted consumers, trainspotters and dinner-table philosophers. Two and half years after privatisation, the rail system, in common with the occasional train service, seems to be going backwards.

The network is inundated with passengers, but only the train companies are kidding themselves that it is because of the speed, comfort and reliability of the services.

Put simply, more people are moving about because there is more economic activity and higher employment. Commuters need to get to work and consumers are keen to get to the shops. There is no evidence that motorists are abandoning their cars for the life-enhancing experience of riding on the trains - an objective often repeated by ministers.

The fragmentation of the rail industry under the previous Government's privatisation programme has arguably meant lower safety standards - witness the pounds 1.5m fine levied against Great Western yesterday - and overcrowding.

While there is some evidence that companies are prepared to make long- term investments in rolling stock, there is little indication that they are prepared to operate more services or lengthentrains to cope with short-term increases in demand. That would mean higher leasing charges and lower profits. London's commuters - a key group of New Labour voters - are having a bad summer.

At the very least, the reliability of trains is no better that when British Rail existed. Services to and from the main London stations are packed to the rafters from 7.30am to 10am and 4.30pm to 8pm. And there is no sign of the companies responding to the problem.

Yesterday it emerged that one rail operator, Connex, was planning an "experiment" in which seats would be ripped out to pack more passengers in. The company said it was attempting to gauge "passenger reaction".

When early morning commuters step off their trains, the London Underground system is, if anything, worse. Management has closed the Circle Line rather than a small part of it because it miscalculated the impact of engineering work. A key part of the Northern Line into the City has also been shut while engineers deal with speed restrictions in place for nearly 70 years.

And yesterday London Underground was fined pounds 300,000 for a fatal accident which a judge argued had been waiting to happen. The driver of a Piccadilly Line train didn't see an 85-year-old woman fall under his wheels after she got off because of a blind spot in the camera system. He did not learn of the accident until eight stops later. Management was fined for failing to make safety checks.

While the seeds of the frustration were sowed during 18 years of Conservative government, the issue of transport and the railways in particular have suddenly invaded the consciousness of inhabitants of the legendary Acacia Avenue who after a life-time of voting Tory risked a fling with New Labour at the last election.

The Government's troubles intensified yesterday when an influential Commons select committee published a catalogue of severe criticisms of Mr Prescott's department.

The Labour-dominated Environment, Transport and the Regions Select Committee concluded that the department had failed in every area of transport policy from the funding of London Underground to road maintenance. The committee's report listed 31 recommendations needed to overhaul the department and suggested that millions of pounds had been wasted on consultants' fees.

It also launched a scathing attack on the department's fondness for producing glossy documents rather than real improvements in service for hard-pressed commuters and motorists. "The department's achievements have been largely confined to the publication of documents and policy statements and the establishment of task forces. As yet, there have been few tangible improvements," it stated.

The MPs pointed out that the Tube had lost millions of pounds because of delays in setting up a public-private partnership for the network and the pounds 1bn overspend on the Jubilee Line extension.

It warned that no further costs should be incurred in trying to complete the extension simply to get it ready for the new year celebrations at the Millennium Dome in Greenwich, south-east London.

The committee said it was "concerned" that the Government may have to wait until 2003 before Railtrack decides whether to complete the Channel Tunnel rail link to St Pancras in London.

It urged Mr Prescott not to ease off on his review of Railtrack's access charges simply to keep the company on board in the high-speed Channel Tunnel link.

The failure of the department to estimate the extent of the backlog of trunk and local road repair costs also came under attack and the MPs called for an urgent target to be set.

John Redwood, for the Conservatives, said the report was a devastating indictment.

"It shows the complete failure of John Prescott's transport policy with chaos on the roads, chaos on the Tube and a railway industry up in arms," he said.

"He has slashed expenditure on the roads and failed to deliver a better public transport alternative. The report shows that he's wasted taxpayer's money and lost battles with the Treasury."