Even the engineering works fail to run on time
The first thing people need from train travel is reliability. If there is a frequent train service with trains running to timetable, you can plan your day and your journey accordingly. If there are too few trains, or if the trains are late, the whole day can be disrupted. Busy people are then into cancelling meetings, failing to turn up for appointments, or for politicians letting down audiences who have sought their help to keep democratic debate alive in the UK.
The second thing regular users of trains need is affordability. The latest round of fare increases are in many cases swingeing, at a time of restrained earnings growth, higher taxes and mortgage payments, and a credit crunch. We are used to many of the things that are supplied by the competitive private sector becoming cheaper over the years, as the bargains in the January sales in the clothing and textile departments remind us, and as the ever better car offers on the forecourts confirm. The poor old train commuter is sandbagged again. He or she is being made to pay an ever heavier price for trying to rely on the railway.
So why are train travellers this week being made to pay through the nose, and why are they being told that there are still no trains on part of the West coast mainline near Birmingham?
The answer is partly the botched nationalisation of Network Rail by this government, partly the technology and partly the fixation of trying to get more speed out of the railway instead of concentrating on reliability and affordability, the things that matter most to passengers.
The government has been at its most prejudiced when it comes to transport. The bankruptcy of Railtrack turned a poor solution into a worse solution, leaving all the evils of monopoly in place when it comes to track provision, whilst removing the restrictions on overspending that applied to Railtrack but not to Network Rail. The answer is exactly what you would expect from a monopoly with effective recourse to the taxpayer to underwrite almost any level of spending it wishes to undertake on the existing network ?? an expensive but inefficient system where the passenger can be made to pay by both higher fares and more cancellations and delays, and where the taxpayer picks up a huge tab as well.
The governments answer to the growing cost of rail travel is to seek to make the main competitor, road travel, dearer as well. Because the private sector parts of road travel are becoming more efficient more quickly, the government has to intervene more and more to slow traffic down, to increase the costs of road fuel and to increase the costs of road use by adding specific road charges to the high motoring taxes. Despite all this, rail still only accounts for 6% of travel, because the railways in their current state simply cannot take the extra volume they would need to take if we were to effect any kind of modal shift from car to train.
The pursuit of higher speed for trains is the immediate cause of the delays on the West coast mainline. If you wish to allow trains to achieve speeds twice as fast as you think safe for road traffic, you need to change all the signals and to check the track very carefully. If you wish to sustain those speeds over any distance you need to lay new straight track for longer distances. The railway is not offering a competitive service for so many of us for so many of our journeys owing to too much political interference in priorities and the endless pursuit of the prestige project of super fast trains between large cities.
The railway under this government has become a great black hole, devouring huge amounts of taxpayer cash and taxpayer guarantees. They refuse to order their priorities in line with the public need for more and more reliable trains, not necessarily faster trains.
The railway Ministers should realise just how big a gap has opened up between rail and road transport. Standards of safety, fuel efficiency and passenger comfort have advanced much more rapidly on the roads than on the tracks. It is an offence to travel in a car without a seat and seat belt, yet you may still have to travel on a long distance fast train with no seat, let alone a seat belt. The interiors of modern cars are well padded in case of a crash, with no sharp or hard surfaces offering a threat to life or limb, whereas the train interior is full of hazards in a crash. The luggage in a car is placed in a separate compartment to the passengers, whereas on a train it is left in an overhead luggage rack with no restrains, so it can hurtle around the carriage in the event of derailment. Trains remain far too heavy. As a result they guzzle too much electricity or diesel, take long distances to stop, and are limited to very few trains an hour on any given stretch of track as a result.
The answers to the railway problem are not all difficult or too expensive. I do want to see the huge inherited network of great routes into our main cities and between our main cities taking more of our traffic, and I want them to do so in a way which is accessible to more people. I want to see more fuel efficient trains, lighter trains, and more frequent services ?? the three happen to go together.
My proposals are these:
1. Order new much lighter trains with better brakes, so we could go from running under 30 trains an hour on a typical piece of track, to 40 trains an hour
2. Spend the money on increasing capacity and reliability of what we have got, instead of concentrating on prestige projects for very fast trains using conventional train technology
3. Break Network Rails monopoly, reuniting track and train running and ensuring there is some competitive challenge in the network as a whole. Wherever possible there should be more than one company offering a service between major places.
If the rail providers had to compete for business they would not get their priorities so wrong, or let down their passengers so often. Nor would they be planning such a huge fare hike. The airport owner in London knows it has to compete with Paris and Amsterdam airports, so it does not close the main runways at Heathrow for engineering works over holiday periods when people want to travel. The shops do not close early in January because there are too many people wanting to sue them in the way we see tube stations closed at busy times. It is high time we had some new thinking, geared to the needs of us, the passengers.