What should be on the agenda for the new Chairman of Network Rail?
I would like him to start with an analysis of who the users of the railway are, and where the growth in passenger and freight demand might come?
The opportunity seems to lie mainly in two big areas. The first is travel into and out of the larger cities, especially but not only at peak times. The second is more rail freight, taking heavy loads off trucks for longer distance haul. The first is genuine demand, even at current high ticket prices in the case of peak travel . The second is desirable new business which will be price and convenience sensitive.
I would want him to see the problem from the traveller’s point of view. The traveller wishes to go from A to B, where neither A nor B is a railway station. The traveller is interested in speed and convenience as well as price, and will look at total journey time rather than time of the train. This means the successful railway manager does have to ensure good car parks, set down points, bus and mass transit links to mainline stations. The problem with the commuter railway is the problem of peak usage. The railway has to allow for much greater demand at busy times, and have surplus capacity for the rest of the time. More flexibility in running shorter or longer trains would help adjust. Taking too many trains out of the off peak timetable makes the total service less desirable.
Trains need to be lighter, so they can brake more quickly. It would then be possible to increase throughput on lines, from around 30 an hour to 40 an hour in the peak, greatly improving services and adding 33% extra capacity when needed. The long lengths of empty track visible in the morning peak is testimony to an old technology and an unwillingness to innovate to help customers. None of this requires a change of traction from diesel to electric. Customers do not on the whole want electric as opposed to diesel trains, though they would like new trains with more capacity for busy periods.
The problem of freight is one of access and single wagon marshalling. Few businesses have a trainload of traffic for the railway each day. British Rail allowed freight to run down, losing much of the old single wagon business it enjoyed on pre war industrial parks with rail access. The railways came to rely on coal, steel, cars, cement – a few large businesses with large quantities to haul. These in turn have declined or found other cheaper ways of sending their goods.
The railway should ask how can they put freight branch lines back into larger industrial parks and urban industrial areas, so they can pick product up for large manufacturers who lack a trainload? How can they provide marshalling yard access for businesses which are prepared to drive a container to the railway to travel longer distances by train? How can they start to match or beat the price of road haulage? They should be able to cut costs of manpower, as a long train needs but one driver, and cut the costs of fuel. There has to be an allowance for the extra costs of getting to and from the railhead. Maybe the railway has to offer tractor units and delivery drivers to take freight from main freight depots to end destinations.