Focus: Transport Crisis: If only I were in charge, things would be very different

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The Independent Online
e have a great rail network in the UK and it should be entering its renaissance in the new millennium, as road and air transport achieve gridlock. Most citizens wish the railways well in this quest - but seem hell-bent on talking the industry down. Even my lifetime newspaper, the Independent, is choosing to focus on "Great Railway Fiascos" rather than raising our sights to the great opportunities.

I passionately believe in a railway renaissance and have returned to the industry to help to make it happen. It is, however, quite clear that at least three strategic changes are needed if the rail industry is to win back public approval. These are:

n Japanese reliability. There is no future for an unreliable rail network. We have to re-focus our existing investment and management over the next five years in establishing Japanese reliability for our trains and infrastructure. This will require a zero-tolerance culture in which vital equipment is duplicated, equipment specifications are tightened and stand-by resources are provided. Thereafter, unreliable equipment and contractors must be banished from the system. I would offer big incentives for success, rather than the current fashion for negative fines and humiliation.

More rail capacity. My second five years would see investment swinging towards the creation of new rail capacity. The railways have been shrunk to fit a static demand - and are now groaning under the welcome load of a 20 per cent increase in traffic.

The 50 rail bottlenecks that need to be upgraded are well known - and yet it has taken the industry four years to tackle just one of them. I would want government to lead a 10-year transport initiative to tackle these bottlenecks at the rate of five a year. We have got a strategic rail authority - and Sir Alastair Morton - let's use them. Paris is building its fifth express CrossRail. London does not have one.

A virtual rail network. We all know that the railway is a series of complex networks, and yet we have allowed it to be fragmented into 112 companies which are now held apart by complex legal contracts. It is twice as hard to make things happen in the new structure compared to the old railway. This has nothing to do with privatisation. The industry has simply been over-fragmented. One train timetable change for Virgin can now involve 17 other train companies, six Railtrack zones and numerous regulatory bodies in endless debates.

My biggest wish would be to bring the rail industry together again in about six private companies with the minimum of inter-working. This could be done over a period of time, in which larger units are put up for tender and everyone is free to bid.

If this process led to train companies being allowed again to lease and operate their own infrastructure we would really be on the way to Japanese reliability - and perhaps even an end to the current blame culture.

A rail renaissance in the UK is dependent on reliability, capacity and the end of fragmentation. If we can achieve this, I shall be the happiest railwayman in the UK.

JIMMY KNAPP

General Secretary of the RMT transport union:

A number of issues must be addressed: public accountability, underinvestment, and development of an integrated transport system. There is a need for direct investment to ensure overall development of the whole system, not just the minimum to keep the regulator happy. It is preposterous to spend billions creating shopping malls at stations when trains are failing to run on time, track and signalling is deteriorating, and maintenance and renewal employees are being made redundant through lack of work.

The Strategic Rail Authority should aim to increase rail's share of passenger and freight traffic, to develop the railway network, to increase its size and achieve best value for the taxpayer, to create significantly better integration between buses and trains, and to offer better facilities for car owners to transfer to public transport. Services must be put before profit. In the long term the answer is to return the industry to public control. Anyone who travels widely in Europe will know that their publicly owned railways put our private railway billionaires to shame.

STEVE NORRIS

Director General of the Road Haulage Association and former Conservative Transport Minister:

One of the great advantages of a privatised railway is that companies can be held to account. The regulator's task is to show that by applying strong commercial pressure on companies who need profits for dividends, he can secure even greater improvement in Britain's railways.

Amid the welter of anecdote, never forget that since privatisation we have seen over 20 per cent more passengers on Britain's railways. If I ruled the railways, I would be looking forward to the next two years in which the profile of Britain's rail rolling stock will be transformed. I would also insist on comprehensive multi-franchise ticketing arrangements and even better and more accessible information.

RICHARD POUT

Chair of Transport 2000's London Region:

It's simple to provide better services on existing lines. Daytime trains around Birmingham now run every 15-30 minutes and finish as the pubs shut. This could happen in many towns and cities. The lines are there but Railtrack seems to make a meal out of simple improvements to track and signals so that more trains can run, if someone pays the train operator to provide them.

Like Dublin's DART, trains in our major cities must operate a "turn up and go" service every 15 minutes through the day. This is crucial in London where traffic congestion is strangling the city.

MICK RIX

General Secretary of Aslef, the train drivers' union:

Attitudes and political policies need to change if we are to have any chance of providing an adequate and reliable rail service. Public transport is a public service and should be under public control and direct public finance. Companies are paid subsidies by the taxpayer, but are failing to provide anything other than poorly maintained, filthy and overcrowded trains that run late.

Fragmentation of the network has proved to be a failure. Railtrack should be abolished and the system re-integrated under the new Strategic Rail Authority. Having track and signalling in one set of hands and train operations in another provides a pass-the-buck mentality where blame for any shortcomings is simply bounced off to another party.

CHESHIRE SIGNALMAN

Safety is a major concern, as I now regularly work over 14 consecutive days. Too much of Railtrack's money is spent on glossy brochures, publicity material and renovating stations instead of repairing track and renewing signalling equipment.

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