Leading article: What a way to run a railway

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The Independent Online

A new year has dawned and, with it, the realisation that our rail system is hopelessly inadequate. Liverpool Street Station in London was still closed last night after holiday maintenance works overran. The West Coast main line was also severely disrupted because works in the Rugby area had not been completed on time. Tens of thousands of commuters returning to work after the Christmas break were affected. The Rail Regulator has launched an inquiry into the failure of Network Rail to complete the maintenance, partly in response to loud complaints from Virgin Trains.

But the private train operators are hardly paragons of efficiency either. For years, they have operated a ridiculously complex ticket pricing structure, running misleading advertising about low fares. And their services have often been dire, with late, overcrowded and dilapidated trains. First Great Western, in particular, is a disgrace. And while these companies complain about Network Rail, they hardly fall over themselves to help passengers deal with the pain caused by maintenance works. Why, for instance, have they failed to club together to make pre-booked tickets valid on competitors' trains at times of disruption?

Making matters worse is the fact that rail passengers are facing hefty fare increases from today. Train operators say these rises are needed to pay for improvements to services and to cater for the greater numbers of people using trains. In the insane world of the British railways, the public's reward for using a service is to be hit with extortionate price increases.

But the franchises should not be the only target for passenger anger. The Government is equally to blame. It is true that New Labour inherited a botched post-privatisation structure. But its neglect of the network is just as much to blame for the present mess. Ministers have consistently rejected sensible proposals for building Continental-style high-speed rail lines. Instead, they have lavished help on road and aviation, by freezing fuel duties and building more roads and runways.

The subsidies provided for the railways have been largely squandered. Yet, instead of learning the lesson that the money needs to be spent more wisely, ministers stubbornly refuse to further subsidise rail, insisting any improvements must be paid for by passengers and not by taxpayers. This is madness. The Government is sitting by while rail companies effectively use increased fares to choke off supply, forcing people onto the roads, or into the arms of the airlines.

Such behaviour from a government that claims to take climate change seriously is either hypocrisy or incompetence. Whatever the truth, this is an appalling way to run a railway.