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Thursday, 10 January, 2002, 15:27 GMT
Roots of a rail crisis
Paddington station
By BBC transport reporter Rebecca Pike

The rail crisis has crept up on the government while it was looking the other way.

It is hard to believe now, but for years the railways were simply not a priority. Other issues, like health and education, topped the agenda.


As things have got worse, calls for renationalisation have grown louder

The privatisation of the railways under the Conservatives reinforced the attitude that they were not the government's problem.

That attitude prevailed under Labour. And it has been reflected in levels of investment.

In 1994-5 - the last full year before privatisation - total public expenditure on the railways was 3.3bn. It has fallen steadily since then and in 2001-2 will be 1.5bn.

Punctuality too, has been falling. Comparing levels before and after privatisation is difficult because a new way of measuring has been introduced.

Punctuality plunged

However, between 1998 and the Hatfield disaster, the average number of trains on time drifted slowly down from around 90% to 86%.

Long distance trains did improve slightly - though from a lower base of around 81% on time in 1998.

But, after Hatfield, all levels of punctuality plunged as speed restrictions crippled the network.


There are too many people pulling in different directions.

The latest figures show that just 63% of long distance trains were on time - and that has fallen even further since Railtrack was put into administration.

As things have got worse, calls for renationalisation have grown louder. But privatisation itself was not the problem.

There are plenty of examples of successful privatised rail networks - like in Japan.

Situation 'bonkers'

The problem was the structure that was imposed, with one company in charge of the track and 25 different companies in charge of the trains.

There are too many people pulling in different directions. Richard Bowker - the new chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority - has described the situation as "bonkers".

Richard Bowker
Richard Bowker has commuter operators in his sights
Mr Bowker has already indicated he would like to see fewer train operating companies - perhaps about a dozen. His first targets are the operators that run into the London terminals.

He believes train companies are so busy defending their contractual rights that the service to the passenger can be a secondary consideration.

He gives a graphic example. Sometimes a train on its way into London will be delayed at a red signal outside a terminus solely because another operator has exclusive access to the only free platform.

On Monday, with the publication of the Strategic Rail Authority's national plan, many in the industry hope he will flesh out these plans.

They also hope he will allow some train operators to stay in the game for the long term. Only then will they be willing to invest the amounts needed.

Spending surge

Which leads to the final, most pressing question. Will the railways now start to improve, or is there worse to come?

Certainly, total public expenditure is pencilled in to rise to 2.1bn in 2002-3 and 3.5bn in 2005-6, before falling back to 1.9bn in 2009-10.

But those figures can change. And they also depend on the willingness of private companies to invest.

The longer Railtrack's future remains uncertain, the less likely they are to do so.

Perhaps the one consolation is the fact that Stephen Byers has promised that people will notice a difference by the next general election.

The key question is how much he can achieve through political will alone.

BBC News Online's in-depth coverage on the state of the UK's railways


10 year rail plan

1,000 MILE RAIL TRIP
See also:

10 Jan 02 | UK Politics
09 Jan 02 | UK

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