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Thursday, 10 October, 2002, 12:45 GMT 13:45 UK
Six Forum: Railways
Tilting Train

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  • Click here for the transcript

    The Strategic Rail Authority has announced plans to "get a grip" on the delays and soaring costs of the West Coast Mainline modernisation project.

    New proposals mean trains will travel no faster than 125mph compared to the original plans for tilting trains running at 140mph.

    The SRA, which monitors rail performance targets, blames the cost of the project, which has risen from 2bn to nearly 10bn.

    But Transport Secretary Alistair Darling warned passengers faced severe delays from next year as parts of track were shut "for quite long periods" to allow the work to be completed.

    Rail commentator Christian Wolmar answered your questions in a LIVE forum for the BBC's Six O'clock news, presented by Manisha Tank.

    Hello, a warm welcome to the Six Forum. I'm Manisha Tank. What do you make of the British railway system? The Strategic Rail Authority's been pretty blunt about it - things are in a mess. The SRA's trying to sort out delays and soaring costs but in doing so it's found that promised high speed services on the West Coast mainline won't be able to run as fast as Virgin trains would like, a big set back to Virgin's plans to roll high speed tilting trains out on to their patch. It could be 10 years before they run at top speed. It's the customers though that are likely to feel it the most - costly upgrades over a long period of time will mean more delays and what does that mean for reliability?

    Joining me: Christian Wolmar of Rail Magazine, he's a bit of an expert on the system. Thanks for being with us Christian.

    First of all Dominic Brett's written in from Brussels, Belgium asking: "Why does Railtrack consistently underestimate the cost of upgrading the West Coast mainline?" Obviously Dominic's is one of our BBC News Online viewers. And also we've had an e-mail from Julian Haywood: "It's difficult to see how the cost of actually carrying out the West Coast upgrade can soar by five times. How much of the increase is genuine and how much is simply compensation, penalties and fines, changing hands between the multitude of companies that are involved with the Strategic Rail Authority?"

    Christian Wolmar:
    Well there's two explanations. One is that there is a lot more concern about safety on the system now and so most of the work is now done when the railway has got no trains on it, which is overnight - between about 11.00 p.m. and 6.00 a.m. - that puts costs up because there's a lot more focus on safety than there used to be. But the main reason really is the way that the railways were privatised. There were privatised and fragmented into dozens of different companies. So we have contractors and subcontractors and subcontractors of that, nobody quite knows what is going on on the railway - and that's really the main cause why the costs have gone up so much. But also, as your second listener put it, there is a problem about compensation. In the old days British Rail just used to do the work and if the trains were disrupted that was it, now every time the trains are disrupted the train operator has to get paid compensation and that's pushed the costs up. But all the people in the rail industry I've talked to over the years about this nobody really has a full explanation as to why the cost has gone up five fold, I mean nobody really quite understands it.

    So there are costs of rebuilding and then there are the costs that consumers see face-to-face every single day. Monique Bradley's written in from London: "What will this rail fiasco mean for fares? I'm a regular off-peak traveller to Manchester and find it impossible to get a journey that suits me for a cheap fare even if I look at it weeks in advance."

    Christian Wolmar:
    Well that's right. At the moment the Strategic Rail Authority is looking at fares, it's what's called a fares review, and it may well decide that some of the fares are too low and put them up even further. Now there are some very good deals to be had on the railways but as your viewer says the trouble is they tend to be at 10 or 11 o'clock in the morning, leaving London, and that's not when people want to go, they want to go at 7 or 8 in the morning, when it costs an astronomical nearly 200 quid to go to Manchester. So that is one of the problems and I can't see them greatly reducing the fares. So I'm afraid that's a problem that's going to stay.

    Which obviously we know is very important because getting the fares down will be one way of getting more people onto public transport. Let's move on to Nick Viskinnis in London: "Given that services have deteriorated in recent years why then are rail fares so high?" And you just mentioned they might even put the fares up.

    Christian Wolmar:
    Yes, I mean one extension of that is in London, the commuters, around London and the South East, their fares are partly dependent on the performance of the rail companies and since the performance has been so bad their season ticket prices have actually not been going up, in fact they've been going down. But for most of the rest of the people on the network the fares have been going up, particularly the peak hour fares, the saver fares are actually controlled but the peak hour fares are not controlled and some of the companies, like Virgin, have taken advantage of this and put them up enormously.

    Let's go back to the issue over speed and we've had a text message in: "Surely capacity is more important than speed, why don't the rail authorities increase the number of carriages per train and the platform lengths first, then concentrate on speed?" Obviously these are all parts of the grand equation.

    Christian Wolmar:
    Yes again in London and the South East they are doing that on some of the really busy routes and there's talk of doing it, for example, on the route into Waterloo, kind of expanding the platform. But do you know the best way of getting people to use the railways is to increase the speed. And it's not all bad news here, although we're not going to get the 140 mile an hour trains, we are going to get 125 mile an hour trains. From around 2004 the journey time to Manchester from London will be two hours as opposed to two and a half hours at the moment. Now that is really a fast journey, you couldn't possibly drive it in under three, three and a half hours and that would be in the middle of the night. So speed is important, it will get people using the railways. It did in the 1960s when the line was first electrified the number of users kind of went up enormously because the journey times went down.

    But staying with speed, John Collins has written in: "Is the Strategic Rail Authority really serious about bringing high speed trains to Britain or will we be stuck with slow trains for the next 50 years?" Obviously there's a sense of distrust amongst the public.

    Christian Wolmar:
    Well John there has mentioned the idea that the Strategic Rail Authority has been putting about of a completely new line from London somewhere up north - they haven't actually decided where but somewhere up north, basically a new high speed line down the spine of Britain. And that is somewhat a pie in the sky idea but the costs of this West Coast mainline refurbishment has been so high that in a way it might be cheaper to just build a completely new line. So it remains a possibility but whether we'll see it within the next 20 years remains to be seen.

    It's quite interesting we've had an e-mail from Paul Tyrell in London asking: "Why can't we give companies like Virgin the opportunity to maintain their own tracks and stations?" But this just goes back to the background to where we are now and the kind of system that the UK has when it comes to rail.

    Christian Wolmar:
    Absolutely, I mean he's hit the nail on the head there because I'm a great advocate of doing that. I mean I think that one of the real problems with the way the rail industry was privatised was that Railtrack, now called Network Rail of course, was separated off and instead of having an integrated railway, as we did with British Rail, we separated them off and I think that's been one of the reasons why the costs have gone up so dramatically because in the days of British Rail everybody knew what everybody was doing - so the operators knew what the engineers were doing - and now they're in completely separate companies. So I think that would be a great idea but the government has consistently refused to do that.

    Now many of our viewers can't but help make international comparisons. Andrew Rollinson's written in from Telford: "It was stated this morning that one of the main reasons for scraping the modernisation project was the signalling technology is not ready. If this was the case how do other countries, such as France and Japan, manage to have trains that travel at high speeds?" Basically making the point that they made the decision once upon a time and they got on with it - what's stopping us?

    Christian Wolmar:
    Well basically you need a new line to do it or you need a new signalling system and it has proved to be very expensive to put a new signalling system on. Basically to go above 125 miles an hour you need in cab signalling - in other words instead of having red, green and yellow lights outside, you need the signalling inside and basically speed control from the outside so that a train can't exceed that. You get that in Japan and France on their high speed lines, there's no red or yellow, green signals to kind of go past because you can't see them at that speed - it's just they go 300 kilometres now, 186 miles an hour, in France you can't possibly have outside signals. And that's why we're not going to get 140 mile an hour trains here because it's basically too expensive to put a whole new signalling system in.

    So that's the problem in a nutshell. Stick with us for just a moment Christian, we've been running a vote and we've got the results of it and I can bring to you now, while we've been on air our online viewers have voted on whether they think rail services on the West Coast mainline will improve under the Strategic Rail Authority's new scheme. Fifty five per cent of you are saying that the reliability of the rail service will not improve - 55 per cent say reliability will not improve. Christian what do you make of that?

    Christian Wolmar:
    Well I think they're being a little unfair. I mean I think that when we get the bulk of this work done, we get all the new trains which have started coming on-stream - Virgin's new trains - I think the reliability will improve. But usually these things take a couple of years to bed down, so in the short-term no but in the long-term we will have a much better train service.

    Now you mentioned Virgin there, we've talked about Virgin throughout this, it would be interesting to get some response but apparently they're not saying very much at the moment about what this will mean. John Hays has written in from Lancaster: "Virgin has a case for compensation as they've invested in equipment that they can't use now, well not to it's full extent at least. Does the North West and Scotland also have a case for lost investment, seeing as they're being denied the quality infrastructure links which in the long-term jeopardises the economic strength of their region?"

    Christian Wolmar:
    Well I don't think we've quite reached the stage in our compensation culture where whole regions can sue poor old Network Rail or Railtrack. But Virgin also have less of a case now because basically the way that the contracts operate now have been changed, so that the compensation will no longer be applicable. Basically Virgin are now getting a set amount to run their services and the risk has been taken back with the government, so they're not going to get compensation beyond this year either.

    Well Christian we're sprinting to our conclusion so my final question for you from T. Long in London: "I work in the rail industry and it seems to me that there's too much bureaucracy. If the number of managers and consultants in the rail industry were cut the cost of projects would be reduced drastically." And we touched upon this earlier in the Forum, perhaps at the beginning, it seems like the left hand doesn't know what the right hand's doing.

    Christian Wolmar:
    I would agree with the wholeheartedly. I have a particular aversion to consultants because I think they have no responsibility and they impose an awful lot of cost on the industry. In the old days it was done by the rail companies themselves and I think that was a much better way of doing it.

    Well we'll have to wrap it up there. Christian Wolmar of Rail Magazine thank you very much. Before we end the forum a bit of a positive note for you Malcolm in Scotland wrote into us, sent us a text message actually: "I travelled today on Virgin out of Euston and arrived in Motherwell five minutes early. The trains are doing a great job. What's everyone's problem?" Thanks very much, at least someone's getting somewhere on time. Thanks for watching the Six Forum, I'm Manisha Tank, goodbye.

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