By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine
After a series of debacles, the railways are turning into a quiet success story. But now the train companies face another struggle - coping with all those new passengers.
Praise has been a preciously rare commodity in the railway business for as long as anyone can remember.
But that's starting to change. In recent months voices have begun to rise above the melee of malcontents, floating warm words at the transport secretary Alistair Darling.
"It's been a bit of a quiet success story," says Adrian Lyons, of Rail Forum, a group which represents a range of interests within the industry. "The railways are a lot better run now. They've started to get their act together."
The figures are impressive. Passenger journeys passed the one billion mark last year for the first time since 1959, on a substantially reduced network.
Investment has been at record levels and high profile projects, such as the new dedicated fast line from Folkestone to London, and the inter-city track upgrade from London to Glasgow, are starting to come to fruition.
After years of uncertainty, a plan to build a new east-west train link that runs through central London has been given the go-ahead. And all the while delays - the bugbear of millions of rail passengers - are declining.
Critics will argue that the government has thrown money at the network's problems and there has been huge waste. While passenger groups say services still fall short of an acceptable standard, train companies say they are on target to run nine out of 10 trains on time, by 2009.
Britain now has the fastest growing railway in Europe, albeit starting from a low base. Yet just when it looks like all this optimism could run away with itself, influential voices are sounding a cautious note.
This week, two reports in as many days say the glory train could slow to an unceremonious chug if the billions of pounds that have been poured in start to dry up.
Having chalked up successes like cutting delays and replacing tired old trains with sleek new ones, they are worried the government will staunch investment and leave the privatised railways, by and large, to look after themselves.
But a coalition led by the campaign group Transport 2000, and which unites trade unionists with company managers, says the rail recovery has unleashed a whole new array of challenges.
The railways are struggling to cope with their rediscovered popularity, and those age-old worries about congestion and overcrowding are surfacing again. (A sceptic might ask if they ever really went away.)
Passenger numbers are expected to grow by 28% over the coming decade, according to the train operators, and some routes will become "very overcrowded".
The future of high-speed rail - Shanghai's magnetic levitation railway
All sides agree the railways must find ways to grow capacity - it's how they do so, and at what price, that is now up for debate.
The government, which is responsible for strategic planning on the railways, is looking at better signalling (which would allow trains to run closer to each other), longer trains and even double-decker trains.
Smarter timetabling, which would also squeeze more trains on to the tracks, is another option. And in the longer term there's even something known as "rail peak pricing" which would see rail fares for individual journeys adjusted to compete with road charges.
But Transport 2000 and its allies want something more radical, and more expensive - new railways and track to alleviate pressure on particularly congested lines.
Although there is currently small-scale expansion in Wales and Scotland, there's little appetite in government, for laying hundreds of miles of new track.
Rail v air
One exception is the commitment earlier this year to investigate a brand new north-south high speed line, which would see trains run at up to 180mph. The idea is almost as old as the Pennine Hills that the line would shadow up the backbone of England, but supporters see new reasons to be optimistic.
The rise in oil prices and pressure to cut dependency on fossil fuels could push rail to the forefront as a low emission, high efficiency bulk carrier, both for people and freight.
Pride of Britain - the Channel Tunnel link has restored faith in the industry
A new report from the Institute of Civil Engineers (ICE) urges more spending on new high-speed lines, and even claims such projects, which will cost billions of pounds, would be popular with votes.
"The public is very receptive to money being spent on public transport," says Gordon Masterton, president elect of the ICE.
Opponents view such projects as money pits. The upgrading of the West Coast Main Line being a case in point. At £7bn, it has gone three times over budget.
But the industry is emboldened by the recent success of Channel Tunnel Rail Link - the first dedicated high-speed railway to be built in Britain for a century - which is set to be completed on time and on budget.
Adrian Lyons is similarly upbeat, believing a new north-south line, linking London to Glasgow in two-and-a-half hours, would give the airlines a run for their money. Later this year he will set out to host a series of seminars around the country, to discuss just such a project.
But supporters such as himself will have to draw on all their reserves of charm and persuasion if they are to make an impression in Downing Street, not least because the man now in charge of planning long-term rail strategy recently stepped down as chief executive of British Airways.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
A new high speed line will only rival airlines if the price is right. Currently it costs a lot less to fly and that is not set to change if a dedicated high speed line is built.
The last paragraph of your report highlights the problem. Dr Beeching was from the petroleum industry, the current man is from the airline industry. Whoever is in charge of the railways should be a railway man, preferably a railway enthusiast. Most of all, there must be the realisation that railways need not make money to be valuable.
Tom Lee, Guernsey
In addition a brand new steam locomotive is being built in Darlington to haul trains in the growing leisure market. It will be completed in 2008 and will have cost £2.5m. See www.a1steam.com. I'm the chairman of the charity that is building it.
Mark Allatt, London
Hmmm! My daily rail journey from Cambridge to London Liverpool Street experiences at least one delay a week (usually at Liverpool Street) and always at rush hour! I for one think that several companies need to buck up their ideas before patting themselves on the back!
As someone who spent the best part of Sunday on a train travelling from Grimsby to Leicester I feel that perhaps, instead of inventing double-decker trains, or re-laying tracks closer together they ought to be working on old problems - i.e. the line between Grimsby and Sheffield which has been severely out of action for the past eight years without a solution!
Louisa Hibble, Leicester, UK
For me overcrowding has always been the worst thing about the railways, far more of an issue than delays. Being squeezed into a dangerously overcrowded carraige for 45 minutes makes the train such an unpleasant and undignified form of travel.
Andy, Beds, UK
Quiet success story eh? I've just started work 50 miles from home and I travel by train. Once a week I arrive home on time. I would call it deferred success actually
Steve, Taunton, UK
It's a very quiet success - the trains I have travelled on have leave a lot to be desired. Try travelling between Leeds to Manchester - over-crowded, dirty and often late!
The railways are starting to be a success, only starting. Considering that the fares are double what they were 10 years ago shouldn't we expect something of an improvement.
Kevin, Watford UK
The rail service improving - this must be a joke! As a long suffering commuter from Hampshire to London, I can definitely say the service has continued its steady decline. Changes in the timetabled journey times have disguised the fact that journey times are getting longer; my journey into Waterloo used to be 35 mins, its now 50 mins! And it's still late quite often!
Overcrowding has got worse, and is now the real issue - standing up for 50 mins 3-4 mornings a week is not acceptable.
It's still a farce. The West Coast mainline upgrade was an hugely expensive failure. It would've been cheaper and easier to build a new line parallel to the existing one, thus doubling capacity. Virgin trains get an extortionate subsidy for a poor service. The government are refusing to acknolwedge the public-owned services (such as the soon to be reprivatised South Eastern Trains) are cheaper, more efficient and deliver on service.
Rick, Brighton, UK
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