'Quick-win' measures and long-term investment

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The Independent Online

Britain's new rail chief revealed plans for "quick-win" measures as part of the long-delayed £67.5bn strategic plan for the network.

Richard Bowker, chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA), disclosed that some £400m would go to a Rail Performance Fund set up to "co- invest" with rail companies in short-term schemes to improve reliability, particularly for commuters. The SRA's strategy document confirmed that the authority would aim for a 50 per cent increase in the number of passenger-miles by 2010 and an 80 per cent rise in freight.

The report said there would be a focus on investment in London and the South-east, where 70 per cent of passenger journeys were made. Additional measures would be taken to avoid overcrowding on routes into the capital.

Mr Bowker made clear his intention to reduce the number of train-operating franchises from the present 25 – although he pointed out that the number of companies running services was currently six. He insisted that almost all new projects would be financed through public-private partnerships.

New trains

The SRA said it had become increasingly involved in working with train operators, manufacturers and Railtrack to improve the speed with which new trains were introduced.

There have been considerable delays in introducing new rolling stock, partly because of Railtrack's inability to certify the new trains on time. Because of the company's lack of knowledge about its own network, some train manufacturers were unable to obtain precise information – such as how low bridges were on particular routes – to finalise the design of trains.

The report confirmed that 1,700 new coaches were to be delivered by 2004 to replace 30-year-old "slam-door" trains on the South Central, Connex South Eastern and South West Trains routes. Other London commuter operators introducing new trains are C2C and First Great Eastern.

Virgin is introducing 53 new "Pendolino" trains, which include 477 coaches, on the west coast mainline route, the first of which should be in service by the summer.

First Great Western is commissioning 14 new "Adelante" trains, made up of a total of 70 vehicles.

Stations

Some £700m has been earmarked for improving facilities at about 1,000 stations. The money will be used to provide improved waiting rooms and lavatories as well as new security and information systems. It will also go towards track and signalling schemes at more than 100 locations. The work on stations is due to be completed by 2004 and the whole programme by 2007.

Fares

The SRA said it was examining the fares structure but the report envisaged no major change to the existing system of regulation, in which 40 per cent of prices are controlled by the SRA. Regulated fares are pegged to one percentage point below the inflation rate, although train-operating companies are at liberty to increase other fares – including standard "walk-on" tickets – by any amount.

Safety

The SRA noted that rail was a safer mode of transport than road but admitted that the public had a right to expect continuing improvements in standards. The report said the general safety record of the industry was good. The industry was trying to put right "specific weaknesses", including those revealed by recent accidents.

Major investment programmes are under way, including the replacement of "slam-door" trains and the introduction of the train protection warning system (TPWS). This is a means to stop trains after they have passed red lights.

Further measures were needed by the organisation that will take over from Railtrack – currently in administration – to tackle reduce resulting from vandalism and trespass.

The Uff-Cullen report into rail safety recommended the introduction of automatic train protection (ATP), which is a far more sophisticated and reliable means than TPWS of stopping trains before they pass signals set at danger.

As a consequence of European law, Britain will have to introduce the European rail traffic management system (ERTMS), the latest form of ATP on high-speed lines. One of the main recommendations was that such a system should be installed throughout the high-speed network by 2010.

A study jointly led by the SRA and Railway Safety – a subsidiary of Railtrack – is under way to develop a practical timetable for implementing the changes and identifying the costs involved. Institutional changes had been recommended by the second part of the inquiry conducted by Lord Cullen and accepted by the Government. The recommendations included establishing a rail-accident investigation body independent of the Health and Safety Executive, the industry's safety regulator.

There will also be a fully independent safety organisation to replace the present subsidiary of Railtrack. This constituted a "substantial agenda for change" in the industry.

The report noted that there was no "off-the-shelf" version of ERTMS, although trials were under way on other European railways. Planning for two pilot schemes on Britain was well advanced, the document said.

Training

The SRA chairman announced the establishment of a National Rail Academy within the next five years.

The report said the industry needed more specialist and managerial skills and had to make better use of those that it had already. The industry needed to "instil pride and satisfaction" in the job and focus everyone's attention on what customers wanted.

The report said that experience and skills had been lost as companies had "downsized", while recruitment and training in railway skills had often been poorly organised. The private sector had brought new ideas and approaches to the railway, but progress had not been consistent throughout the system. A more professional and systematic approach to management was needed in particular for "frontline" staff.

The present structure and incentives had failed to ensure adequate recruitment and training in many key skill areas, as a recent survey by the Rail Industry Training Council had shown. These included signal, track and overhead line equipment engineers. Training periods for these skills were lengthy but essential to provide the levels of competence required. A more disciplined approach to training and development would also help to improve safety in the industry.

Rail investment in the nationalised railway had a "stop-go" pattern that was now being repeated under privatisation. It had meant that suppliers did not have the confidence or the order books for adequate recruitment and training, or to commit their best resources to railway work.

New projects

The report admitted that progress in delivering major schemes had been "disappointingly slow" and the rising cost was "a very serious concern".

New enhancement projects, including work to modernise the west coast mainline route between London and Glasgow, was in progress. This is the London-to-Scotland line on which Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Trains company will be introducing high-speed tilting trains later this year.

Although the trains will be able to run at 125mph, the full 140mph speed may not be reached because the SRA said it was reviewing the west coast upgrade. This was likely to lead to "some scaling back" on the original plan.

Among the substantial programmes envisaged are platform extensions for Connex South Eastern by 2005; the Channel Tunnel high-speed rail link by the end of 2006, Thameslink 2000 by mid-2008 and the modernisation of the South West Trains line by the end of 2010.

The east coast main line is due to be upgraded by the end of 2010. The modernisation of this key London-to-Scotland route is listed as a priority scheme, with half-hourly services to Leeds.

Although not entirely ruling out other schemes, the plan made clear that certain projects were unlikely to be implemented before 2010.

These include the Crossrail scheme across the capital; a north-south high-speed line between London and Scotland, and new railway links to Heathrow, Edinburgh and Glasgow airports.

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