Leading article: A long-term prescription for short-term problems

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The Independent Online

Monday brings a Green Paper on housing; Tuesday - a White Paper on trains. We would not suggest for a moment that, as Chancellor, Gordon Brown had delayed release of the necessary funds for such predictably popular announcements until he was safely ensconced in No 10, but the coincidence of these two spending papers in the last week of Parliament before the summer recess cannot but leave a warm glow - even if it is not warm enough to dry all the surplus water in central England.

As a newspaper, we regularly sing the praises of rail travel and argue for more investment to speed improvements. We have cast envious eyes towards France, where the high-speed network competes against air travel on most major long-distance domestic routes. Trains are far more environmentally friendly than cars or planes. In our congested country, they should be faster on many routes. If integrated with other forms of transport, they do not need to be less convenient. With freight, the case should be unarguable: far more freight should be transported by rail than on our overladen motorways.

Too often, though, our railways have proved uncompetitive, on price and convenience, with other forms of transport. A succession of structural reforms has been confusing to passengers, customers and staff. At times it appears to have compromised safety. Too often, the interests of passengers seem to come a poor third to those of company directors and shareholders.

In many ways, though, the picture is not quite as black as is painted. On most routes, privatisation has brought improvements. Trains are newer and cleaner now than they were even 10 years ago; on-board facilities are better. And overcrowding is not always the result of cuts in rolling stock and timetables. The simple truth is that more people are taking the train.

Recently, rail use has gained an additional boost from hassles at airports, with the Eurostar a particular beneficiary. On domestic routes, lack of capacity and bottlenecks probably account for as many complaints as fares and structural complexity. In principle, such operational problems should not be impossible to solve.

For all these reasons, yesterday's White Paper had been keenly awaited. And, in the event, it had much to commend it, not least a quotient of brisk common sense. Crossrail will proceed. Two crucial stations, Reading and Birmingham New Street, are to benefit from multi-million-pound improvement programmes, and 1,300 new carriages will be added to the most crowded routes.

The sting in the tail is that, while government spending on the railways will increase, revenue from fares is to fund a growing share of spending on the railways - three-quarters by 2014, compared with half at present. In part, this growth is supposed to come from a projected increase in passengers. But it is hard to believe it will not come from increased fares as well. This may not need to be as painful as it sounds. The White Paper requires rail companies to simplify fare structures. If very high and very low fares are abolished, a rise in average fares might not hurt too much. Passengers might be persuaded to settle for a fare structure that seemed less of a lottery.

There will be disappointment in some quarters that this plan for the next 30 years of rail travel in Britain focuses so much on the details and so little on ambitious new projects. That criticism is valid. We would argue, however, that at this stage it is relatively modest, practical measures that will do most to make passengers happier: longer platforms, more carriages, fewer delays and more pleasant stations. The only question then is why such basic improvements need a timetable of seven years.