Sunday, June 22, 2008

Let The Train Take The Strain

British Rail's old catchy slogan, 'Let The Train Take The Strain', worked and, despite years of neglect and under investment, so did the trains. A high speed rail network is a viable solution now, if only the government could wrench itself away from the powerful road and airline lobbies.  

If there is one thing that is sure to generate pride, passion and nostalgia, it's the railways.

Today we are faced with a bewildering and expensive ticket pricing structure, unfathomable to everyone except the private rail operators and a fiendishly complex financial funding arrangement, unfathomable to everyone except the private rail operators. 

We have to look across to the continent to see how to really run a rail network.

Here it looks like the Sunday non-trains will last for ever but that's to be expected. There's just not the money to be made for the train operators. They make money through commuters, weekday peak travel and business passengers.

And the present policy of simply upgrading existing tracks and trying to design faster trains to run on them is a no-brainer and a typical waste of money. Brown and New Labour would rather cosy up to their pals in the powerful airline and airports industries.

We've been taken for a ride. Splitting the track from the trains was foolish. Meanwhile the rest of Europe forges ahead with dedicated high-speed rail links. 

The launch of a dedicated high-speed Eurostar service to the continent was welcome. Until people realised that's the only high-speed rail link (HS1) we have. 

Whatever happened to HS2, London to Edinburgh and beyond and HS3, London to Glasgow and beyond? Well, now, Network Rail, has dusted off the old plans for more high-speed routes, with the long forgotten HS2, HS3 and even HS4, 5 and 6.

It would cost billions of pounds to implement but one of the few big spending projects that makes sense. Heathrow's Terminal 5 cost billions. Network Rail made an after-tax profit of £1.2 billion last year. In France, domestic air travel plummeted after the introduction of high-speed rail links.

Network Rail's proposals mean building lines dedicated for high-speed trains. The East and West coast main-lines are a priority, but others include London to South Wales, London to Cornwall and London to Birmingham. 

Taking inter-city trains off existing tracks would double the number of services between commuter stations. And there would be more room for freight trains, easing pressure on the motorways. 

This is all starting to make too much sense!

Network Rail says construction could begin towards the end of the next decade. But that's not soon enough. 

The stumbling block is funding and New Labour's dreaded 'N' word'. They can't even bring themselves to say it. 

Public funding would put spending on the public accounts balance sheet. Instead they'd rather use complex accounting tricks to give billions of pounds to the private, greedy train operators and forget about the long suffering passengers. 

The New Labour government should accept that the railways are a strategic utility. With tracks and rolling stock in public ownership, the operators still could be licensed to just manage and run an efficient service. But nothing else. 

The present arrangement is a disaster. A proper rail system would save the country from road-travel congestion and air-travel pollution.

Rail nationalisation (or pubic ownership) is probably one of the few areas which would still carry sympathy with the voters. 

There is a chance for Brown and New Labour to show they can be big, bold and imaginative and have the country's interests at heart.

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