John Redwood: We can solve all our rail problems by taking a more rational approach

'The Paris Métro runs on rubber tyres, giving much more grip, allowing trains to halt more quickly'
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The Independent Online

Why are so many rails breaking or cracking? Why do we need so many speed restrictions? Do we really require so much track maintenance and renewal?

Why are so many rails breaking or cracking? Why do we need so many speed restrictions? Do we really require so much track maintenance and renewal?

The problem of broken rails has been greatly amplified by the relative success of the privatised railway. Many more tonnes of freight are being hauled by rail than there used to be, and more passengers are travelling on fast trains.

But the heavier the axle loadings on freight trains, the more damage they do to the tracks. Likewise, the faster a train runs along the tracks, the more damage it does. And if you combine speed with heavy weights, the damage increases dramatically. In Britain, the railways use steel wheels on a steel track. Steel wheels are heavy and hard, and pummel the rails – particularly on gradients and bends, of which we have far too many.

Steel on steel also causes another problem. It is designed to have little friction or drag. Unfortunately, in wet weather the wheels have little traction either – which, in Britain's inclement climate, leads to the multitude of cancellations with which commuters are all too familiar.

The main asset Railtrack has, even in administration, is the vast scale and number of the routes it owns, with the potential to carry increased numbers of people and freight into every large town and city in the country, from one end of Britain to the other.

The question we should be debating is: what is the right technology to exploit these routes to maximum effect? We all want a cleaner environment, and we want easier travel over both long and short distances.

There are at least four different kinds of market out there, each catered for by a sector of the railways that often need to use the same track. Firstly, there are long-distance passengers. This market competes with airlines on speed, and with buses and cars on comfort and cost. The traditional approach on the part of rail companies has been to upgrade track, signals and trains to try to battle more successfully against the airlines.

But we should recognise that there are limits imposed by existing technology on how successful railways can be in this arena. If I want to travel 250 miles, it will take at least two and a half hours by train, while a plane can fly the same distance in 40 minutes. My decision will depend on where I live and where I want to go in relation to the locations of the airports and stations. If I want to travel 400 miles, the plane will still take less than one hour, whereas the train will take more than four hours. Increasing train speeds by, say, one quarter, would cost a fortune and would still vary the equation very little for the traveller.

The Japanese are trying out Maglev technology, which involves raising the train from the track to remove friction and keeping the train on course by side as well as track-based guides. This approach causes the equation to change substantially. Levitated trains can travel at running speeds two or three times faster than trains using steel wheels on steel track. If we are serious about competition in the long-distance passenger market, this is what we need to look at.

The second type of market is the commuter railway. Here the freedom of passage from town centre to town centre comes into its own. At the busiest times of day the roads are badly congested. We need our railways to take a lot of the strain, especially into London. Unfortunately, at the very time of day that the railways are needed most, they are also badly congested and often unable to supply all the capacity the public would like.

There are typically four trains an hour from Wokingham to London, meaning you do not have to wait more than 15 minutes, however bad your journey to the station. Yet in the peak period from 7.40am to 9.10am there are only three trains!

It is commuter trains that are particularly plagued by late running and delays caused by weather conditions, such as the wrong type of snow and leaves. The more inclement the conditions, the more infrequent the trains, because of the difficulty steel wheels have getting a grip on steel tracks. This creates a problem every time the train has to stop – which a commuter train generally does frequently, and over a relatively short distance. The more momentum the train builds up between stations, the greater the difficulty. For safety reasons, therefore, there have to be very large gaps between trains.

The Paris Métro, by contrast, runs on rubber tyres. Rubber gives trains much more grip, allowing them to accelerate more quickly and surely, and allowing the driver to bring the trains to a halt more quickly. That is why there is no need to have one mile or more between buses in the morning – because they have rubber tyres. We should examine new compounds for train wheels to give greater adhesion. This would raise safety standards and reduce late running and cancellations, and would also mean that more trains could run on the same stretch of commuter track in the mornings and evenings, when they are needed..

The third market is the freight railway. Steel wheels on steel tracks are very good when it comes to shifting heavy loads over long distances, as long the terrain is flat, the route is straight and they do not have to stop very often. The exceptionally long trains, for instance, used for shipping grain and hogs across the great plains of the United States use very little power. Momentum keeps them going. Steel on steel becomes more problematic in hill and valley terrain, or where there are many bends.

We do need more freight to go by train, but we also need to make sure that axle loadings are not too high, which damages the track. We also need to continue the post-privatisation of single wagon marshalling, with suitable freight sidings at industrial locations, to cut down on the amount of trans-shipment.

The fourth market is cross-country railway. This competes poorly with coaches and cars, and is dogged by a lack of frequent services between the main locations outside London.

The best move where our railways are concerned would be to get commuting right, to improve freight haulage especially of large and heavy loads, and to understand that fast passenger movement is best over medium rather than long distances. Extra money should be spent on freight infrastructure, including a new generation of trains and wagons that do less damage to the rails, and on a new style of passenger train for commuters that has much more traction and can run in all weathers.

A truly integrated transport policy will need a revolution in Town Hall thinking about getting people to stations to start using the train in the first place. It means better road access to stations from towns and housing estates, with good bus services, better roads and improved car parking. Then the train could start to shift a far bigger proportion of the morning and evening peak flows. For long-distance fast travel we need to look abroad to a very different technology. Steel wheels on steel rails will never be fast enough, but the faster they go the more damage they will do.

The writer was Secretary of State for Wales, 1993-95.