Widespread disruption over Easter boosts the case for investment in Britain's rail system


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Disruptions to rail services, along with the snarled-up roads, are as much part of the traditional British Easter as chocolate eggs, and this year looks like being a particularly egregious example of the tradition.

Fresh in the mind is the chaos of last Christmas when more than 115,000 passengers suffered because of a decision to close King’s Cross, one of the world’s busiest railway stations, for an entire day, on 27 December, and Paddington for part of a day. This Easter, we hope, will not be so spectacularly bad, but there will be major delays as the main route between London and the West Midlands is closed for maintenance. London Midland’s advice to anyone thinking of travelling between London Euston and Hemel Hempstead is simple – don’t. Network Rail says it will deploy 14,000 workers over the four-day weekend to carry out £100m worth of repair and maintenance work.

The prospect of delays – and the time and expense involved in travelling by rail even on good days – naturally encourages people to use the car instead. Two years ago, snow and ice over Easter kept many people indoors, easing congestion, but when the weather is fine – as it was last year and is expected to be again this weekend – the traffic queues begin. It is anticipated that as many as 15 million people could fill the roads, with the heaviest traffic on the four main motorways – the M1, M5, M6 and M25 – and on the A303 through Hampshire, Wiltshire and Somerset.

After the traffic jams and the rail hold-ups will come the demands for something to be done to prevent a repeat of this chaos. Since this is an election period, the political parties may even be drawn into a bidding war over who has the best plan for stopping this from happening again. But there is nothing that can be done that will not take years and cost billions. Given the state that the railways are in, Network Rail has no choice but to carry out the vital work of Sellotaping the network back together over the holiday period, when fewer people are travelling, rather than inflict this pain on commuters trying to get to work.

The unhelpful answer is that we should not be starting from here. The UK should have done what Germany, France and Spain did 40 years ago, and poured investment into creating a first-class railway system. But the governments of those days were short-sightedly intent on reducing the cost of the railways and on building roads, having failed to foresee that more roads invite more traffic.

Labour’s big plan for improving the rail system was the multibillion-pound HS2 high-speed link between London and Birmingham. The Coalition has stuck to this idea in the teeth of intense opposition, and gone further, promising to extend HS2 north to Manchester and Leeds, and talking of an HS3 to link the cities of the north. This newspaper has sharply criticised the failure to keep costs under control and to present a clear economic case for the project. It is not good enough to say that it will create jobs during its construction and cut journey times: the argument is whether the benefit from increased rail capacity is worth the cost.

Nonetheless, the principle of investing on a grand scale in the railway system is the right one. Anyone who has campaigned to stop HS2 on the grounds that we do not need a modernised railway system has no business complaining if their journey over Easter is disrupted.