The Government has suppressed a rail industry document that paints an alarming picture of a ramshackle network which will fail to show any major improvement unless the industry receives billions of pounds extra from taxpayers.
With just 18 months to go before a possible election, the annual report by the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA), leaked to The Independent, has been "binned". The strategy paper, due for publication this month, confirms that the Government's 10-year plan for the network is in tatters.
Senior sources in the industry and within Whitehall say the document has been scrapped after its fourth rewrite because it would have put considerable pressure on Gordon Brown to release more money for enhancements to the network.
The report shows the target for increasing the number of passengers using trains and the amount of freight on the network will be undershot by a massive margin unless Tony Blair authorises a huge increase in investment. Under current funding arrangements, the number of passengers will increase by 24 per cent in the decade to 2010 rather than the 50 per cent envisaged and the amount of freight carried will rise by 55 per cent not the 80 per cent planned.
All of the £64bn earmarked in the 10-year plan announced in 2000 to create a system "fit for the 21st century" will be soaked up simply in maintaining the present network, the document reveals. The gap between income - including state subsidy - and expenditure has risen by £500m to £2bn in 20003-2004, the report says.
The 130-page submission, which will make depressing reading for the millions of commuters who have to endure crowded trains every day, went through four drafts before it was decided that it was unfit for publication. The Independent has a copy of the fourth and final version, entitled "A railway that works for customers", dated 16 December.
In particular, it spells out the main projects which the Government has failed to finance and which show little sign of attracting state backing.
Among them are the critical renewal of the ageing main lines between London and Edinburgh and from the capital to the west country and Wales. It points out that awaiting approval are the trans-London Crossrail and Thameslink 2000 schemes and the East London Line Extension, vital for the bid to stage the 2012 Olympics.
Plans for a new dedicated high-speed railway between London and the North - the pet project of Richard Bowker, chairman of the SRA - is among the "unfunded".
It is understood that the Department for Transport believes the document, even after four rewrites, amounts to little more than a politically damaging "wish list", much of which the Treasury will refuse to countenance.
Both the department and the SRA say it was "common sense" to delay any conclusions on strategy until the Chancellor had completed his comprehensive spending review in the summer.
The document says: "It is vital that development work for improvements that could be built in the next decade and beyond is under way now." It adds: "Although improvements are being made, varying from operator to operator, the perception too often remains that the railway is not run to benefit its customers and is not a coherent network."
It says that, while there has been increased spending since privatisation, resources for further expansion are "very constrained". It adds: "There is much more to be done than can, in the short term at least, be afforded." It reveals that the top three causes of train delays for which Network Rail was responsible have all got worse. Track circuit failures were up by 15 per cent, broken rails - the cause of the Hatfield disaster - were up by 31 per cent and points failures by 15 per cent.
The news comes after The Independent revealed that the Department for Transport is planning to rein in the SRA which ministers argue has already spent huge sums of taxpayers' money without any discernible improvement to services. Punctuality and reliability has remained static and, on long-distance routes, has got substantially worse.
Ministers are known to be desperate for "good news" that they can spread about the railways before the general election rather than a brutally honest assessment like this.
However a spokesman for the SRA said: "Honesty is not incompatible with the electoral cycle. We don't think - and the Government does not think -that." He said that Mr Bowker had always insisted that he would not go the Government with a "begging bowl".
A spokesman for the department said ministers had not seen the draft. He continued: "This document is in the bin. There will be a new document in July which will take into account the comprehensive spending review."
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