Last night I attended a dinner to discuss the railways. It turned out to be a lively and interesting event, moving on from the usual train spotterâ€™s enthusiasm for the past and the anorakâ€™s belief that the only way you can run a railway is the way Network Rail do it.
I began my attempts to provoke new thinking amidst the assembled galaxy of railway directors, regulators and former regulators expecting to end up as isolated as the UK arguing for an EU which repeals legislation, but was pleasantly surprised by the turn of the conversation.
I complained that Network Rail has a monopoly hold over the best routes into all our city and town centres, yet can only account for 6% of the goods and passengers travelling. I urged the railway to change its mode of operation and its technology so it could carry far more people. I asked for lighter trains, more frequent services, more trains per hour on any given stretch of track following changes of weight, braking, traction and signalling. I asked why fares were so high yet subsidy still paid more of the bills than passenger receipts, condemned the over regulatory approach and the way the UK railway was outpaced in efficiency and service by many overseas railways.
The early defence that the technology and trains have to be as they are, and that you can never run more than 24 trains an hour safely on any piece of track soon transposed. I was told that the Engineering Director of Network Rail does agree that lighter trains are a must, and they will produce better performance, speeding up more quickly, braking more quickly and saving energy. I learnt that powerful figures from the industry and regulatory background also agree that Network Rail should be decentralised or split up, and some agree that track and train should be reunited in regional companies. Many agree that contestability is important, and as much competition as possible would be a welcome replacement for too much regulation.
I pointed out to Network Rail that they have all too many tatty or inadequate stations, like Wokinghamâ€™s. Property deals could release capital from commercial development on railway land to pay for new stations. Stations could invite in other businesses to supply services train users need â€“ car servicing and cleaning, safe parking, food shopping, business services â€“ as another source of franchise revenue.
All agreed by the end of the dinner that the current performance is not good enough, and that it requires substantial change to create a good working railway growing at a fast enough pace for travel demand. There was a lot of agreement that monopoly is at the root of much of the poor performance. One informed observer said that when Labour nationalised Network Rail, it took away all the private sector banker/shareholder pressures. As a result the cost base of the existing railway doubled rapidly! Network Rail is not the answer. It is a largely unaccountable monopoly, gobbling taxpayers cash but not yielding much by way of improved results.