Ministers are being bombarded on all sides by irate politicians worried about the performance of the passenger railway in their constituencies. From those Tories in the constituencies south of London stretching to the sea, the performance of the trains has been heavily criticised; ’trains are always late, we can never get a seat, they close the line for upgrading and the diversion takes ten minutes longer’ and, in the Thames Valley, all these things plus ‘we want the electrification but don’t like the design of the catenary and masts and they work at night’. Private meetings between ministers, officials and these angry politicians are supplemented by a sustained media campaign that ‘heads must roll’.
The Labour party is also critical of the Government’s transport policy, usually on the level of fares and the need to nationalise the railway, and other MPs are angry that new works, including electrification, have been delayed.
Is all this fair? I am a regular critic of parts of the railway, the services and Network Rail. The fallout from the costing, programming and budgeting of enhancements issue still goes on; again, this was a fall out for years of trying to keep up with the growth and improved speeds and quality that the industry and politicians want to see. Lessons have been learned and the management and delivery is now stabilised. In the meantime, the essential maintenance and renewals work, which makes the UK probably the best railway in Europe, continues.
So minsters get it in the neck from both sides and, supported by some media, the call goes out for ‘heads to roll.’
But these are generally issues which can and should be changed without destroying the railway that we use. No amount of rolling heads, be they ministers, officials, Network Rail or whoever will solve these problems immediately, and many such changes will actually delay improvements that we all know are desperately needed but which take time to implement – and when they are being implemented, there will inevitably be disruption and delays.
Look at some of the statistics. The ORR reports that, in the last financial year ending in April 2014, 1.59 billion passenger journeys were made in Great Britain on franchised train services. This was an increase of 5.7% over the previous year and was the highest officially recorded number since the current monitoring began in 2002-03 and double the figure for the late 1990s.
More train kilometres were operated as well, with a combined total of 524.8 million kilometres for all UK passenger operators, the distance has increased by a huge 17%.
Network Rail forecasts that passenger numbers will double in the next 20 to 25 years.
Freight transport is also expected to double in the next 20 years, adding to the capacity problem. Everyone wants more freight on the rail, whether for environmental reasons or so that trucks do not get in the way of their cars, but this is sometimes constrained by capacity as well.
So let us step back and think, since it may take 10 years to plan and build a major enhancement – more for projects such as Crossrail 1 – what would be needed to accommodate double the number of passengers compared with even today’s figures?
Look at the existing network; many parts are already full in the number of train they can run; some parts of the Southern network have more trains per hour than some London Underground lines. You cannot double the number of trains, although ERTMS signalling would give some 30% increase – perhaps in ten or 15 years’ time.
What about longer trains? These are possible on parts of the network, but in the most overcrowded parts south of London there are already 12 car trains, and how can longer ones be accommodated at stations such as Waterloo or Charing Cross? 24 coach trains would be unpopular with passengers anyway.
So build more tracks, flyovers, tunnels, platforms etc? Suddenly passengers become the opposition to any change that might affect them; look at HS2 or the GW electrification. They may have a case, but the time and cost of dealing with such objections must limit the number of such schemes.
Being realistic, HS2’s real raison d’etre is to release capacity on the existing WCML; what a pity it was not sold as that from the start, rather than to get rich business people to Birmingham from London 20 minutes quicker. The cost is huge, although quite likely to be cheaper than trying to add more tracks to existing lines, with all the construction difficulties and local opposition that this might cause too.
Tunnels are the obvious answer, and of course Crossrail 2 would help a lot in relieving the congestion in South London and beyond but, again, the cost will be huge, and people in the Northern Powerhouse area, wherever that is defined, might argue that they need a fairer share of the finance for new capacity lines, to go some way to redress the 10:1 imbalance of transport spending between the London area an elsewhere.
So the short answer is that the network is full; ERTMS will help, but only in part enough to meet this doubling of demand in 20 to 25 years.
Where does renationalisation come in all this? Network Rail is already nationalised, and some TOCs are also nationalised, albeit owned by another member state. Would the state be able to provide the new rolling stock which is appearing in greater numbers to meet this demand? At the moment, most new rolling stock is privately financed, often on the back of a government guarantee that the trains will earn money and be used. Can we realistically see the Treasury stumping up the cash to pay for new trains, on top of the money it gives Network Rail and some of the franchised operators? Can we see DfT officials, good as they are, suddenly becoming TOC MDs and innovating, investing and improving their services in the way that the TOCs do now? As long as there is good competition and a sensible and professional franchise competition, I see no reason to change.
We probably have the best people in the industry running many of the TOCs and Network Rail, and we have a supportive but sometimes critical ministerial team, who understand that there are no magic wands to increase capacity and reliability; improvements are happening and will continue, but when so much of the railway is running at or near capacity, there will inevitably be hiccups. What a great situation for the industry to be in! We probably have the best railway in Europe in terms of growth, service quality and reliability.
So MPs are baying for change – a worrying combination of Tories south of London and Labour. But what do they want instead? If heads roll and there is massive restructuring, train orders will get cancelled or delays, NR will have its enhancements paused, and the network will get more and more unreliable.