More trains and more passengers 'means less reliability'

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The Independent Online

The latest plan for the railways was launched on the trite soundbite that the Government wants to see a "safer, better and bigger" railway.

The latest plan for the railways was launched on the trite soundbite that the Government wants to see a "safer, better and bigger" railway. Those are all motherhood and apple-pie concepts, but the aims are inherently contradictory, which demonstrates not only the huge task the Government faces in trying to improve the railways but also the wider lack of coherence on transport that has dogged New Labour ever since it was elected in 1997.

The Government says it wants more people on the railways, 50 per cent more over the next decade to be precise. That is a pretty tough target given that the railways are already overcrowded. Numbers coming into central London during the peak morning rush are almost up to the record high of 430,000 during the Lawson boom of the late 1980s, and the prospect of another person travelling on the trains for every two already on them is not one that many commuters, already struggling to get a seat, will welcome.

But the Government also wants train performance to improve. Currently, about a quarter of trains are late, a figure that is an unbeaten high. One of the original tenets of the plan was to have been a promise that 15 out of 16 trains, or nearly 94 per cent, were on time, but that idea was quietly dropped when it was realised that such an ambitious target was impossible to achieve.

The sad truth is that a railway with more trains carrying more people on it will be a slower and less reliable one. (It is also likely to be less safe as the risks of accidents are increased with more trains and more stress on staff.) That is the hard fact contributing to the demise of Railtrack, which was not rewarded with extra cash for carrying more trains and people. As more and more new services were introduced by train operators eager to profit from the rise in demand, the infrastructure deteriorated and Railtrack was forced to spend extra funds on maintaining it.

British Rail used to solve this problem quite simply. During boom times, when the numbers on the rail network threatened to become unmanageable, it raised the fares, to push some passengers back into their cars or to deter them from travelling at all. Now fares are partly regulated to prevent that type of action and, in any case, the Government wants to see more people on the rails, not fewer.

The obvious answer to the conundrum set out in the plan is investment, but it is not quite so easy. Investment to cope with overcrowding and expansion on the railways never pays for itself. The golden rule of railway economics is that as more people are attracted on to the trains, a greater subsidy is needed. Sure, a few extra trains or coaches can be put on to meet a small increase in demand, but once a growth figure such as 50 per cent is being bandied about – over the past six years it has been about 34 per cent – major investment is required in rolling stock, longer platforms, extra capacity on the lines and so on. All such spending requires subsidy and therefore the government has to cough up extra cash, even if some of the investment is partly funded by private investment. The Government's hope that some £30bn of private cash will be attracted into the industry over the next decade is, to put it mildly, optimistic.

A coherent long-term plan would address this issue. Instead, the Strategic Rail Authority's effort yesterday pulls together a host of existing schemes for patching up the railway and a few on expanding it, but it contains no realistic explanation of how the system could cope with a 50 per cent rise in passengers – and, incidentally, an 80 per cent increase in freight – without buckling under the pressure.

It is churlish, though, to be too hard on the Government for trying to bring out a plan on the railways, the first such effort for nearly 50 years. (Its predecessor, the Modernisation Plan of the mid-1950s, was shelved, sadly, within a few years, after billions of pounds had been wasted on huge but soon-to-be-redundant marshalling yards and steam locomotives that ended up being scrapped after a decade as diesel took over.)

The plan does set out a series of short-term measures that may well have an impact on travellers, such as a rail performance fund to try to boost punctuality of train operators. But it desperately lacks a long-term vision. It has a pathetic half-page look at plans for after 2010, which rather obviously states "there is clear evidence that the railway will have an increasingly important role after 2010". Surely we should have learnt lessons from the French. Their brilliant TGV system came about only because the Government set out a plan for the railways to which, broadly, it kept despite economic ups and downs. It is only through the creation of extra capacity, in the form of new lines or extra tracks next to existing ones, that the Government's long-term plans for expansion of the railway can realistically be met. Yet, the strategic plan is virtually silent on the issue.

A network of new or completely refurbished lines will cost a fortune, a lot more than the £33.5bn of government cash set out in the plan for the next decade. But the voters would probably be happy to pay that price if they knew that at the end of, say, 15 years of sustained investment, they got a rail network of which Britain could be proud. Instead, we have a muddled plan with contradictions that cannot be resolved by short-termism.

The second edition of Christian Wolmar's book, 'Broken Rails: How Privatisation Wrecked Britain's Railways', has just been published by Aurum Press, and costs £9.99