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Thursday, 17 January, 2002, 16:53 GMT
Blueprint for the railways: Will it make a difference?
The Strategic Rail Authority has published its long-delayed 10-year strategy for improvements to the troubled UK national railway network.
The SRA spells out how it intends to meet the government's targets of 50% more passengers and 80% more freight on the rails, with less overcrowding, by 2010.
The government is contributing £33.5bn to the strategy, with the plan dependent on another £23bn from private investors.
The plan confirms a number of investment projects, both short-term and long-term. They include introducing the train protection warning system on all lines by 2003 and the replacement of all "slamming door" trains.
The report also includes upgrades for 1,000 stations by 2004, with new car parks and waiting rooms.
What do you think about the SRA report? Are these the recommendations that commuters have been waiting for? Or do you think the plan comes up short in its aims?
This Talking Point is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.
Stuart, Devon, UK
The key to improving railways is quite simply investment, and lots of it. Private sector companies (and their shareholders) will inevitably demand profit from running the railways, whereas bringing the rail network back into the hands of the public sector would mean, in theory, that taxes and fares could be ploughed straight back into staff wages (increasing motivation) and the railways themselves.
The Government is not short of investment and it has astonished most people that while Tony Blair was able to find the money to bomb Afghanistan, he was not able to find enough to improve the rail network at home. Instead top bosses (like those at Railtrack and South West Trains) are reaping obscene pay-outs whilst we suffer a train service in desperate need of investment and rail workers are forced to take industrial action for decent pay and conditions.
The plan fails to relieve any of the three worst bottlenecks in the country. The worst, Birmingham New Street, could easily be remedied by improved service to Birmingham Snow Hill. The second worst, Cardiff Central, could benefit from restoring Abergavenny - Merthyr - Neath and Pontypool - Aberdare - Neath. The third is Leeds, which could be relieved by a cross-Bradford tunnel. None of these three things are planned. It is therefore a short-sighted and bad plan.
Here in Austria the railways are still state-run, they are non-profit making. Commuter fares are much lower than those in Britain.
However, subsidised railways keeps the roads from becoming too congested and thus are an important economic factor.
Vijay K Vijayaratnam, United Kingdom
I am delighted to hear the railways are to be improved, again!
But wait a minute... were we not promised an improvement to the West Coast
Mainline last year, and the year before that, and possibly the year before that?
If privatisation had been done properly and multiple operators were allowed to run on the same line then the public would have chosen another operator and punished the poor one. Instead we have a Labour Government who claims to be for change but we see very little change.
We're well into Labour's second term, and they have just managed to produce a "plan". They've allowed the rail network to deteriorate, and they've fixed nothing, and yet it's taken them six years to write a "plan". New Labour is looking more and more like a totally reactive government, with no idea of where it's going, and only capable of dealing with whichever is the single issue about which the public is currently upset. Labour is managing to alienate one section of the electorate after another. Anyone with a child in school, a relative in hospital, or who commutes by train or road, is going to think very carefully about how much Labour has improved their life in the past six years while Tony Blair paraded around as a World Leader.
Brian W, UK
Too much is being said about the need to invest in the railways without regard to what sort of investment it should be. We have had plenty of investment in the railways since privatisation but there is little to show for it apart from unreliable and uncomfortable trains with tightly packed seats - for example, Richard Branson's new rolling stock with almost 50% less space per passenger compared to what third class travellers could enjoy fifty years ago.
Huge amounts are being swallowed up in consultancy fees, uncosted safety and other regulatory requirements, specification bloat and over-pricing by the rolling stock manufacturing oligopoly.
Unless the investment is prioritised on sound principles, the
railways will turn into a financial black hole, as the West Coast Main line upgrade is showing.
New rolling stock is going to make matters worse - it is unreliable, cramped and uncomfortable; new trains due for lines south of London have fewer seats and less legroom due to incompetent design. Unreliability of new trains is due to excessive complexity - carriages now have 25 miles of wire in them..
I would urge all politicians to go for a ride on a Chiltern Train before deciding anything more about the railways. They should wonder why this line is so highly thought of by virtually everyone. The main reason I think is that it's relatively small and self contained and its employees seem to have a real pride in working for their company. It seems to be reminiscent of the highly efficient Swiss Railway lines. We need more operating companies not less, and hopefully we can then get some of that catalyst 'Pride' which is probably more important that money.
James Warwick, UK
The plan isn't radical enough. The entire rail network should be brought back into public ownership and run by a board elected by rail workers and passengers.
People complaining that the campaign targets the south east would do well to remember that more people use the London underground each day than the entire national rail network, so focussing efforts on the region with by far the most commuters doesn't exactly seem like quite such a stupid or biased idea.
The railways need a complete change of direction.
Up to now the emphasis has been purely on fast, long distance services whilst the local and commuter services have suffered.
We need shorter trains that are far more frequent plus the passing loops at stations that were lifted in the past need to be reinstated.
We need better facilities on the platforms and dedicated high speed rail links.
Tram systems to replace the dirty buses that this government seems to love so much.
Perhaps one day we may have a rail & tram system that we can be proud of, but I am not holding my breath!
Ian Thomas' strategy is not quite right. Having more frequent, shorter trains won't solve anything because lines are already congested. It doesn't matter whether the train is 2 or 12 carriages - it still takes up the same 'section' of track. A sensible transport system will exploit the best parts of its individual components: aeroplanes are good for speed; cars are good for convenience; trains are good for mass capacity.
Keith Collins, UK
Nunhead Station in South London is at the top of a hill and is often exposed to freezing rain. There is no shelter, no waiting room and no seating. It is used by hundreds of commuters who end up getting to work frozen and wet. Ignore the Tories we do need better waiting facilities
The key to the success of the plan will be through the improvement of infrastructure. Neither the capacity nor quality of the Victorian network we have inherited will stand up as they are for any longer. These problems must be addressed before anything else can be implemented
What happens to the fines that are collected from the rail companies for lateness, cancellations etc? Could these fines not be ploughed back into the system as a form of forced investment instead of using government subsidies?
The proposal seems biased towards London and the South East. A first class railway for the capital shouldn't come at the expense of the rest of the UK. I would have hoped that this "radical" plan would have included suggestions for new services and re-opened lines where financially viable. New Street in Birmingham is the centre of the network but only gets a brief mention. Virgin Cross Country is mentioned but only in terms of new rolling stock, not in terms of services to new destinations. Cities such as Hull are isolated because they have been dropped from the InterCity network. The railways must provide a public service and services should not only be judged on the profits they make.
A 10-year plan just means nothing will change for the foreseeable future and highlights Labour's will to win the next election. One aim is increasing passenger numbers by 50 percent but the privatised companies have already achieved this. And the way they will achieve another 50 percent is to not spend anything on the roads.
Currently I have very little confidence in any of the individuals that run the rail network. There seems to be very little flexibility within the system. This morning the train I would have caught was delayed by 40 minutes, yet a train had stopped at Northampton from London. It took 35 minutes for staff to announce that one train would take the place of the delayed one. It was simply pretty pathetic by any standard.
No amount of money can buy staff motivation or the quality of leadership required to run a proper national rail service.
I like the idea of long-term thinking on a big problem if there is the will to carry it forward. I do agree that alternatives to commuting need to be considered. Personally, I like living in London and would not want to start commuting to somewhere in Surrey. However, one alternative the government may like to consider is to facilitate an increase in telecommunications. Although, most definitely not for all, I would love the ability to spend 2-3 days a week working from home, at present this is not feasible even for me in the IT industry. But with enough investment in IT networks it could become a reality. I suspect it would be a lot cheaper to lay miles of fibre-optic cabling rather than railway track. It would also provide a boost to the IT industry which is suffering at present.
Andrew Hepburn, Scotland, UK
£700m on new toilets! That really is going to help, isn't it?
This government has really lost the plot. I can't wait for the next election when they get dumped
As a regular commuter I am not really interested in improvements to station toilets or waiting rooms. It's the service itself I want to see improved. I should not have to be on a station platform long enough to worry about the state of the toilets or waiting rooms.
So where is this windfall coming from? Don't tell me - I'm going to be subsidising this farce, along with millions of other taxpayers. Already I pay thousands of pounds every year to commute to work by rail and now I'm going to pay even more. No wonder people are losing confidence in the government.
As a regular commuter on north west region trains I feel aggrieved that most of this money looks set to be spent on the south east. We have problems too you know.
I hope that it does not increase the rail fares any further. It would be interesting to know how other European countries can manage their railway network with rail fares nearly half of what people pay in Britain.
Peter J Hunt, England
Despite his obvious Tory leanings I do agree with Peter that any plan combining the short-term aims of government to improve its PR and private sector profit maximisation seems a highly questionable route for increasing public welfare. The fact is that the railway services are a natural monopoly which combined with the proven abject failure of government regulation means that it's completely unrealistic to expect the private sector to provide a good service to its captive customers. In order to have good railways they need to be renationalised and have significant public funds invested in this essential core service in contrast to the previous 40 years of neglect and focus on road transport. The European public transport systems show that this isn't an impossible dream and the relatively very small amount of national GDP it would require is surely a good investment to reduce all the lost working hours and days.
Peter J Hunt's assertion that, 'British people don't like to be taxed' cannot be allowed to go unchallenged.
Far too often, it seems, assumptions are made about what the wishes of the people are. The myth of tax was largely propagated during the Thatcher governments of the 80s, who appealed to people's greed.
We are now seeing the long-term result of paying less tax: you get worse public services, where they are still in public hands (the NHS for instance) and those that are not are driven, not by a public service ethic, but the imperative to make profit (train operators, bus companies). In the rush to profitability, the principles of public service are forgotten. Why are people surprised this has happened?
Mark's clear love affair with the continent and its rosy political dimension is to be applauded. Yet I have one point. British people don't like to be overtaxed. End of story. Let us embrace pragmatism instead of stale ideology.
Is it better to have people travelling long distances to work every day, or walking to work? If you remove the need (or more often the desire) for commuting then there wouldn't be a transport problem. If the money is to be spent, spend it on building good inner-city housing estates, relocating businesses out of urban areas and increasing local small businesses. £60 billion is a lot of money to waste on something when the alternatives haven't even been debated.
Martin has an interesting point about commuting. However it assumes that people will walk to work. I think they will want drive even if it is just a 10-15 minute walk. We have reached saturation point for cars, and there is no more room to park in towns and cities. This spending is a really positive sign from the government and the public should support this effort.
If there is the political will for it to succeed, it will succeed. However, it's a 10-year plan and even if this government commits and works towards this goal, will the next three governments have the same priorities and will the global economy permit it?
I totally agree with Eddie's comments and this plan will only get Britain's railways to the level of investment that they should have been 10 years ago! We still do not have a high-speed line over, say, 180 mph as can be seen on the European mainland. Transport is the underlying infrastructure that allows UK plc to function, without it there would not be any jobs, hospitals, schools and so on and should therefore be every government's top priority.
Simon Haskey is right. Railtrack are now struggling to upgrade the West Coast line to allow even 125mph speeds. This should be a basic standard for long-distance rail travel and realignment should be under way to raise the speed limits even higher.
Emphasis must be on the current track, signalling, telecommunications and rolling stock. For years millions was ploughed into station redevelopment rather than the infrastructure that actually gets passengers from A to B. This was primarily a ploy from Railtrack to show the commuters that they were actually doing something about the railway and hence shareholders were kept happy. I think Labour are right in stopping Railtrack at this point. Governing bodies should never be beholden to shareholders.
14 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Rail masterplan unveiled
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