Serious rather than magical thinking needed for rail in 2024

Policy towards the rail industry appears to be at one with the wider malaise that reflects a tired, divided and demoralised government, bereft of ideas. The effect is the reverse of the Midas touch; everything the Department for Transport touches seems to turn to dross.

High Speed 2 is of course a prime example. The Secretary of State was quizzed by members of the Transport Committee who had clearly been well briefed, so knew that the remaining route would deposit trains in the face of the highly constrained section of the West Coast Main Line south of Stafford. Mark Harper sought to present the decision as the result of a rational review of the capacity impacts; it was of course nothing of the sort but an arbitrary decision made at 10 Downing Street with little or no input from either DfT or Network Rail. 

Ministers assert that HS2 will still eventually reach Euston, magically financed by the private sector, with spurious comparisons made with the Northern Line extension to Battersea Power Station even though the potential scale of property development at Euston is nothing like the same. Sir John Armitt, Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission and a serious man trying to do a serious job, has already gone on record to say that he sees no prospect of the private sector funding construction of the Old Oak Common – Euston tunnel. Reading between the lines on the Commission’s website, I detect frustration on the prospects for delivering key infrastructure improvements in Britain, both because of political short-termism and the planning system.

The only clear decision which the Government has taken in relation to Euston is deplorable. The link between Euston and Euston Square has been explicitly dropped, so everyone will continue to have to walk on the surface to the entrance at the west end of the Underground station then retrace their steps underneath. This link would have dramatically improved interchange at Euston and should have been sorted out years ago. In contrast, it appears that, so far at least, it’s still intended to construct an eight platform station on the Great Western Main Line at Old Oak Common, causing enormous disruption to services during construction and extending journey times to and from Paddington for minimal benefit.

The ticket office closure saga is another fiasco. Ministers deny being involved in this but no-one believes that for a moment. It’s certainly true that there has been a massive switch of ticket sales from stations to the internet. London Underground stations have not had manned ticket offices for years but they have staff on the stations providing information, reassurance and assistance for disabled passengers – and a rational, comprehensible fares structure helps enormously! 

Moreover, the proposals from the different operators were inconsistent and, in some cases, represented a flame-thrower approach. Was it seriously realistic to propose closure of ticket offices at Euston, Paddington and Waterloo or did some operators take the view that, if DfT wanted to close all ticket offices, they would propose just that, shrug their shoulders and wait for the subsequent furore? The result is appalling; there are clearly useful staffing reforms to be made which would have potentially saved money and delivered better customer service but there is now a risk that present ticket office hours will be preserved in aspic everywhere.

Last but by no means least, there is the constant slippage to the legislation envisaged by the Williams/Shapps review. We will now have a draft Rail Reform Bill. On the face of it, taking the legislation forward quickly would not have been contentious, certainly less so than the Automated Vehicles Bill which is to go ahead even though the arrival of driverless cars has slipped ever further into the future. I dimly remember Ministers in the Coalition Government promising that driverless cars would be with us in the early 2020s, pretty much at the same time that they were extolling the wonders of HS2 – truly a two tortoise race. There are suggestions that rail reform is contentious within government, as some factions are not happy at the prospect of releasing the current tight control of the industry to Great British Railways as an arm’s length body – after all, why delegate power and responsibility when everything is going so well?

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The impact of climate change is increasingly manifest. The major impacts have been on the formation of various parts of the network. Happily, Network Rail is becoming increasingly effective in monitoring and anticipating problems and the Periodic Review process has recognised the increasing risks, with Network Rail being allowed additional expenditure. 

For example, as I write this, services on the South Western Main Line between Woking and Basingstoke are being significantly disrupted because of urgent remedial work to prevent a landslip. But major impacts on key routes are now becoming much more common; a month or so ago, there were landslips between Durham and Darlington, Leicester and Kettering and Huddersfield and Leeds at the same time. All caused major disruption; even where simplified bi-directional signalling was installed, as between Durham and Darlington, queues of trains inevitably built up waiting to go North from Darlington.

However, on climate change too, the Government seems to be back-pedalling. So there is no rolling programme of electrification and little or no effective leadership from the DfT. For passenger operation, we may well be moving towards wall-to-wall bi-modes but there doesn’t appear to be a clear strategy for freight. Even if greater use is made of the existing electrified network, intermodal trains will almost certainly be diesel hauled on, for example, the Peterborough – Lincoln – Doncaster route for the foreseeable future. The increasing number of container trains won’t happily fit on the direct high speed passenger route via Grantham and electrification of the Lincoln route is at best a long way into the future.

Nevertheless, the aim is net zero-carbon not the elimination of any carbon emissions and, in environmental and congestion terms, rail freight is a highly virtuous business. In a rational world, some continued use of diesel traction would be recognised and accepted – but I fear that increasingly we no longer inhabit such a place.

chrisjstokes@btopenworld.com

Photo credit: Paul Bigland.

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