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EDITIONS
Monday, 17 February, 2003, 16:30 GMT
Rail vision starts to cloud
Pendolino train
The Pendolino is a rare taste of the future

There is no doubting John Prescott's life-long passion for transport.

He saw his ten-year plan, published in 2000, as an ambitious vision, a route map to a bright future of rail integrated with road, car drivers willingly becoming train passengers.

There was nothing wrong with that vision, according to Richard Bowker, the chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority.

It was just that there was no-one to project manage the plan.

Are the government's original ambitions for a bigger, better railway in danger of becoming self-defeating?

The rail industry was seized by dreams of a gold-plated future, upgrading every line in sight, buying miles of new trains, smiling commuters stepping from perpetually punctual trains.

The analogy is that of a new owner, wanting to expand a crumbling historic house.

The architect draws up a plan. Conservation groups offer money. The builders move in.

Only then does the true structural condition emerge. Costs soar and no-one controls them.

The owner knows he must rein in, or the funding will dry up. In the end most of the money goes on repairs, and most of the planned extensions never get built.

Costs soar

So it is with the railways. The cost of modernising the London - Glasgow west coast line has quadrupled.

The overall cost of simply running the existing railway has gone up 50% in three years.

Almost half of the 25 train operators created under privatisation have needed financial bail-outs.

True, passenger numbers have increased. But the trouble is revenue from fares has risen only 25%.

Richard Bowker
Richard Bowker is meeting obstacles
As the SRA says in its Strategic Plan 2003, this raises questions about whether it's worth bringing in extra income from running more frequent trains, if it's outweighed by extra maintenance costs.

In other words, are the government's original ambitions for a bigger, better railway in danger of becoming self-defeating?

Mr Bowker believes the railway industry has got itself into this mess, and has to get itself out.

He argues the SRA's new plan is honest, practical and deliverable.

It means downsizings some major projects, like the East Coast Main Line upgrade, and delaying others, like the East London Line extension.

It means concentrating on sorting out existing messes, like the West Coast Route modernisation project.

The farcical lack of an adequate power supply for hundreds of new trains waiting to run on lines in southern England.

For the government, it is an embarrassing step back.

Less infrastructure

For Mr Bowker, it is a step forward. He says he now has a platform from which to develop realistic ambitions for rail, not fantasies.

Many of the improvements, he argues, can be had for much less infrastructure. Many others can be done a little later.

The SRA wants to be the project manager helping the industry bringing costs under control, in the "critical" 18 months before Mr Bowker asks the government for more money for rail.

If he succeeds, we may yet see a railway which is more reliable, more attractive and modestly larger.

If he fails, a future of ever more congested roads without a reasonable alternative may turn out to be the horrible reality.


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