As I listened to the Secretary of State for Transport’s statement on new investment for the railways just before Parliament broke up, I thought it was about to time to renew Wokingham’s bid for better treatment from the railway industry. I was promised by Network Rail that the new station contract would be let early this year. There is still no sign of ink on paper. I have had another go to find out why they misled us, and why there is still no positive news. This time they have promised me they will sign the contract and get underway in September. I have been given so many promises they have broken, that I wonder if it’s even worth repeating. Let’s hope this time they mean it.
Network Rail has plenty of money to subsidise its activities and to pay for capital works. A lot of money has been spent by the railway, by the central government and by Councils on rebuilding and strengthening many bridges over the tracks, following worries that cars and other vehicles might get onto the railway by accident without major new works. Now there is to be a fund to replace level crossings with bridges or with stronger barriers. I am all in favour of tackling the safety issues around level crossings. At the same time it would be a good idea to cut the congestion the railway causes on many road systems, with too few bridges and with tail backs from crossing gates. I am pressing for Wokingham constituency to be a beneficiary of that money. We have three level crossings in Wokingham, and one inadequate bridge which is too low for many lorries unless they use the middle of a narrow road to get under. The railway creates much of the traffic congestion. Better crossings would ease the strain on the roads, and make the railway safer and faster. The Council has a line for a new bridge to take much of the north-south traffic, as part of its wider plans for the town. In the West Berkshire part of my constituency there is the Ufton Nervet level crossing to change, as that has been a killer on more than one occasion in recent years.
I am in correspondence with the railway industry over how we could get a better deal for commuters. There are too few seats available on peak hour commuter trains, and too little choice of train at busy times. The railway industry has insisted they can only run about 30 trains an hour on any stretch of track. The reasons are the lack of traction of steel wheels on steel rail, and the type of signalling they use. These two features require big gaps between trains to try to keep the railway safe. I have pointed out that the great routes into the centre of our major towns and cities need to be used more at peak times. That is when the train has a great advantage, and when we ought to be able to move many people speedily on nearly full trains with sufficient seats for the passengers. To do so requires better braking systems, and more modern signals. The railway has resisted this for years. At last they tell me they are working on both better brakes and better signals, and could indeed increase capacity markedly with new systems. If you could run 45 trains an hour instead of 30 that is a 50% increase in capacity, but still means less than train a minute using the very expensive track. With more trains you would clearly need more bridges, as crossing gates would be down so much more.
The railway has also always resisted the idea of having hard rubber tyres available on stop start commuter trains to grip onto a side concrete rail or onto a part of the track bed should there be slippage problems in bad weather. They agree that rubber tyres are used by parts of the Paris metro to get more grip, but say they could not do the same on an outdoor system in the UK. Now they tell me that even this is not off the agenda anymore. It is high time the railway started to innovate. The technology they are using is very old, and is failing to make full use of their routes. Commuters deserve better. If there was a more regular train service, and if there more seats at peak times, more people would use it.