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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 July 2007, 21:42 GMT 22:42 UK
Bold promises of rail blueprint
By Tom Symonds
BBC Transport correspondent

Billions of pounds will be spent on creating a "bigger, stronger" railway, carrying twice as many passengers by 2030, Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly has announced.

Train platform
Ministers say the changes won't mean big fare rises

The government has never produced its own masterplan for the railways. That used to be the job of British Rail and then the bodies that replaced it following privatisation.

Today's blueprint for the future makes two very bold promises: More passengers will be carried and overcrowding will be eased.

Clearly doing both simultaneously is an enormous challenge.

After all, every year passenger numbers are expected to grow by at least 3%. Much of the growth will be in south-east England.

Take London Victoria for example.

In the rush hour it is predicted there will be 20% more people on the trains by 2014. Yet the government believes they can all be carried without more people having to stand.

In Manchester the increase in passengers could be 26% - and ministers say they can cut the number on each train by 5%.

So how is the railway network going to perform this miracle?

Three big schemes

For starters three big schemes got the green light today.

Reading station will get extra platforms. That will allow more trains to stop there en route for Wales and the West Country - an improvement that actually allows more services to run the length of the line.

The controversial bit of this plan is how it will be paid for

The fume-filled Birmingham New Street is to be rebuilt.

The Thameslink line that joins counties north and south of London will get a £3.5bn investment.

Here it is possible to spot the kinds of strategies that will be deployed across the country under the government's plan.

Several junctions south of the Thames will be rebuilt, adding flyovers so that trains bound for different destinations don't have to stop so often.

The signalling system will be upgraded, allowing a more frequent service of up to 24 trains an hour.

Platforms lengthened

Stations will have their platforms lengthened so 12-carriage trains can run. In fact, across Britain, the government's planning to buy 1,300 new railway carriages.

Plans for New Street Station
Birmingham's biggest rail station is set for a £550m revamp

It is claimed the Thameslink plan will add more than 10,000 seats in the morning rush hour.

This is a good start towards the government's target of accommodating 180 million extra passenger journeys every year.

But beyond these schemes there is little detail about where and when there will be improvements.

The rest of the programme will be decided by the track company Network Rail in its business plan later this year.

The government is effectively saying what it wants to buy, Network Rail has to decide how to provide it.

The controversial bit of this plan is how it will be paid for. Annual rail funding is to rise from £10.6bn to £12.8bn.

The answer is that the government will not be putting in any more taxpayers' money.

Extra fares

In fact government investment will fall. Instead, as passenger numbers grow, extra fares will fund the investment. At least that's the plan.

Either way passengers will be paying in advance for improvements that are still some years away

But the figures don't quite add up. The government's predicting an extra 34% will be raised in fares revenue. But it also says the increase in passenger numbers will be less than that - 22.5%.

If you suspect that this means rail fares will increase, you won't be the only one.

After all, the price of half of the tickets passengers buy are decided by the train companies, which can put them up as fast as they like.

And some train companies are having to pay more to the government for their franchise to run services.

But ministers insist there won't be a big rise in fares. Their plan includes the commitment to maintain the cap on those fares which the government regulates.

It may be that more passengers will travel on the premium long-distance trains which have higher fares. Or it may be that fares will indeed go up.

Either way passengers will be paying in advance for improvements that are still some years away, which isn't going to be popular.


SEE ALSO
Rail passengers want lower fares
13 Jun 07 |  England
Crowded out
25 Jan 07 |  Magazine

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