Rail is the Cinderella who came to the ball, but made such a mess of her attendance. Labour spent the first few years in office praising the results of privatisation. It turned the industry round from decline to rising use, seeing good growth in both freight and passengers. A couple of bad crashes, producing a safety record only slightly better than the nationalised industry, persuaded the government for no good reason to nationalise the track company, which led to a colossal surge in the cost of renewing and maintaining track, slowed the industry down through all the speed restrictions they needed to impose, and disrupted timetables. Now we are getting used to a semi nationalised industry which is not responsive to the needs of passengers and is dreadfully short of capacity at peak times and on popular routes.
The industry is mesmerised by speed. It is a strange paradox of this government that they see speed as an evil on the roads, and are constantly trying to slow cars and lorries down with ever more restrictions and controls. At the same time they have a boys own enthusiasm for ever faster trains , despite the evidence that trains are much less stable at high speeds given the small shiny surfaces of wheel and track that try to stay in contact with each other. Building high speed train networks in the UK is going to b e expensive, slow and difficult. To make high speed trains as safe as possible requires dedicated straight flat track beds with good overnight maintenance. The higher speed the more the wear and tear on the track, increasing geometrically with the speed. In a crowded island with an army of nimbys close to any project it is not going to be easy finding the space and moving enough earth to make a straight flat track bed. In Japan the fast trains there run along a flat straight coastal strip close to big centres of population on tracks dedicated to them and maintained overnight. That is ideal geography and engineering for such a system in the UK the government has tried to introduce faster trains on a mixed use railway, with timetabling and maintenance problems as you try to insert high speed running in with all the rest, and run freight trains overnight on the same track.
What we need in a more practical spirit is more capacity for both commuter travel and heavy freight. In both these areas the railway has natural advantage. In both cases adaptation of what we already have can provide the bulk of what we need. The freight industry needs to build more links to the main railway into the leading ports, industrial parks and freight handling facilities. Marshalling needs to be improved, and longer and heavier trains permitted to get the maximum fuel saving out of railway running compared to lorry freight.
The commuter railway is hamstrung by the current technology. The UKâ€™s emphasis on heavy trains means restricting the number of trains to 24 an hour of the mainline, as it takes so long to accelerate and break using steel on steel technology. There need to be long gaps between trains that take more than mile to stop from top speed. The railway does now accept it needs to introduce lighter weight trains which brake and speed up more rapidly to increase the hourly capacity. It could also think of some other method than dropping sand on the track to increase commuter train adhesion to improve braking and acceleration. Road traffic has long found rubber provides the best answer. Allowing almost bumper to bumper running at commuter speeds every morning.
If we could get the railways to take more the strain of freight and commuters it would serve us well, and improve our total transport fuel efficiency no end. Much of this investment in new vehicles can be private investment, as current investment is.