"Dear Minister, welcome home"

Stephen Byers, the vilified Transport Secretary, is returning from holiday to a crumbling network, hit by strikes. On the eve of the Strategic Rail Authority's masterplan, we offer him some advice on how to revive rail's fortunes
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The Independent Online

As you know, your departure at a time when train services have been even worse than usual has caused widespread controversy. Perhaps you should reflect on the two reports published last week which showed that in our nation the railway – a 19th-century invention – is far from providing a 21st-century service, and the public is, rightly, extremely dissatisfied. But help is at hand. Tomorrow week, the Strategic Rail Authority publishes its plan for the future, the first such document in a generation. However, the plan's precursor, the

Strategic Agenda, published last year, was long on hopeful projects but short on an overall vision – and the plan may well fall into the same trap.

The good news is that on the Euston-Glasgow West Coast Main Line something like the vision that should be the model for the whole industry is emerging. The track is being improved to take 125mph trains – it should be 140mph but that is currently in doubt as the costs of the improvement project have soared out of control – and Virgin's new fleet of tilting trains will not only cut nearly half an hour off train times from London to Manchester and Liverpool but will have at-seat audio for every passenger and a shop on board. Frequencies are to be greatly increased with, for example, four trains per hour to Birmingham and two to Manchester.

On Virgin's other franchise, the cross-country services for which Birmingham is the hub for a network linking the south coast with Scotland and most major cities in Britain, dramatic improvements are also on the way. From next year, trains will operate on a regular basis, and much more frequently, creating a service that will provide a genuine alternative to motorway bashing rather than the haphazard timetable now on offer.

The bad news is that these lines are the exception rather than the rule. There is to be little improvement on Great Western services out of Paddington; the East Coast Main Line between King's Cross and Edinburgh is simply full up and improvement plans have been put on ice; the old Southern Region lines remain dominated by shorter journeys largely for the commuter market; and many regional services not covered by Virgin are still operated by trains consisting of one decaying carriage.

Moreover, thanks to the lack of capacity on the tracks, even Virgin's vision may never materialise fully. To obtain sufficient train paths for the new services, local links run by rival operators and even freight trains will have to be cut or abolished, which is politically contentious and may well prove impossible.

This is where there is a need for a visionary approach by the Government. The plan will have as its mission statement a "bigger and better railway". But achieving this aim will require investment on the same sort of scale as when the railways were first created or, more recently, when it was decided that Britain needed the motorway network.

Most of the complaints about the railways boil down to the fact that both the trains and tracks are overcrowded. The Government says it wants more people to use trains, but it is also trying to reduce delays and cancellations. These are conflicting needs and the only solution is to have more lines. The fiasco over the costs of the West Coast improvement have shown that, where possible, it is cheaper to build new track than try to improve the old one.

So here are a few visionary thoughts from our team for the politicians to mull over. Most people's aspiration for long-distance rail travel – commuters have rather different priorities – is something akin to the TGV services which criss-cross France at 186mph, not only making rail far superior to anything the airlines can offer, but providing a symbol of the modernity of the nation. Why can't we have them here? Unfortunately, it is impossible. Building a new set of dedicated lines in such a small country as ours is politically unacceptable.

However, while entirely new lines may be impossible, stretches of new track could be built to duplicate the busiest parts of the network. That idea has already been suggested by Virgin for the East Coast line but the idea has become bogged down in the byzantine negotiations over the East Coast franchise which have resulted in the current incumbent, Sea Containers, being granted a two-year extension until 2005.

A government with a long-term commitment to rail, as this one claims to have, should ensure that this type of investment is made nationally. Every major line needs an improvement programme to boost the number of trains that can use it. Without such extra capacity it will be impossible for the Government to achieve its target of boosting rail use by 50 per cent over the next decade. Nor should it flinch at the cost, and it should ensure that planning procedures are not allowed to delay schemes. Indeed, there is even an excuse to ensure that these improvements are made quickly. The European Union is requiring new signalling systems to be installed to ensure that accidents involving trains going through red lights never occur again. These systems are much cheaper to install on new trains and track than attempting to retrofit them on old equipment, and the EU wants to see them put in place as soon as possible. Ministers should use the need for these safety systems as a way of persuading the public that the £30bn the Government has already promised for the railways for the next decade is woefully inadequate. The vision must be that within, say, 20 years there will be a network of high-speed lines providing the type of service that, hopefully, Virgin will offer next year.

Unfortunately, not much of this will help to reduce overcrowding for commuters, which is an even more difficult task. While bits and pieces can be done, such as longer trains and small amounts of extra capacity such as the Thameslink 2000 and the East London Line projects, the truth is that most commuters will never get the service – with a guaranteed seat – that they want. Double-deck trains may be possible, at a great price, but fundamentally improving the commuter's lot is so expensive that crammed trains will remain the norm.

Ultimately, for commuters, the only solution is demand management: in other words, trying to reduce the numbers going into London and other city centres at peak times. New technology and flexible working patterns may prove to be the catalyst for improvements, rather than spending billions on new trains and track used just twice per day. If only 50 per cent of current commuters worked one day per week on their computers at home, that would reduce peak-hour daily usage into London by 40,000.

The most important lesson of the failure of privatisation is that the railways are ultimately a government responsibility. The idea that the private sector could solve the problems of the railway by pouring in massive amounts of investment in the right places has been shown to be a fallacy.

Therefore the Government must set out not just a plan for the railways but its vision for them, creating the kind of buzz that the French have done with the TGV. Otherwise, the cost of improvements will never be accepted by the public and the same old muddle-through approach of the past will dog the future of what is the best form of travel.

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