Wednesday 14 September 2011

Train Pain And Gain

Travelling by train, we are told by a government minister, is becoming strictly for the rich in that many of the lower paid cannot afford the fares. He may be right, but in my memory rail travel always made a hole in the personal cash flow.

There were a number of offers, certain cheap day returns, excursion trains and the occasional special for one reason or another. But in the mid 20th Century and earlier despite the flim flam of the films most people did not travel much having neither the time nor the cash.

It was why Beeching took the axe to so much of the rail system. There seemed to be little hope for increasing rail travel use and all the signs of a collapse in the passenger numbers due to the increasing car ownership which impacted directly onto rail’s key market segments (how about that?).

With freight demand also on the wane, partly due to reduced costs of road transport, better delivery possibilities and far less pilfering, especially in the parcels traffic, some places were notorious, there was little hope of making rail carriage for goods cheaper by taking advantage of the increasing demand for consumer goods.

Today, despite the huge subsidies and elaborate financing mechanisms, it is still a form of transport that has relative costs. Certainly, more people have been using rail lately and the numbers are well up. But with an increasing population that is more adult and the sprawl of modern life it is arguable how much traffic is being taken off the roads and just arises from natural increases.

Where services have been greatly improved or introduced to meet modern needs the use has been much greater, notably on the Chiltern Lines, again this may be due to urban sprawl in the South East. Also, with the Cotswolds increasingly part of the commuter belt you would expect more bottoms on seats, or rather squashed up against each other on the old GWR.

The real problem is that between the Ministry of Transcendental Meditation, formerly Transport, Network Rail or whoever it is and the various companies there is a muddle of thinking compounded by lurches into prestige projects like HST2 and schemes in the South East designed to create increased property values along selected corridors.

There is not much joined up thinking, nor for that matter joined up networks and facilities. At the same time there is talk of the need for infrastructure projects to deliver investment in the UK that retains the spending in the UK monetary system.

Which brings me back to the Big Idea for Railways. This is the decision that was ducked after the 1923 Rationalisation and the 1930’s Scotch Expresses and the 1947 Nationalisation and the Beeching years and then the turn of the 21st Century.

It is spurred on this time by the complaints of M.P.’s in the South East over the winter fiascos that badly affected the old slow third rail systems. Their hopes of a better type of electrification have been quickly put into the back of the bottom draw of the Ministerial filing cabinet.

It is to electrify the whole system to a single standard, join up a lot of lines that would benefit from it, add schemes like the Oxford to Cambridge link between the South West and the East and others and perhaps rationalise stock as well to decent modern and fast running standards.

Alas, that one would not make for either easy headlines or short sound bites.

1 comment:

  1. If anything justifies seeing John Major confined to the depths of hell for eternity, it is his privatisation of the railways.

    On the specifics, however, is there not a simple start? It seems obvious that action is needed to take the railways out of the hands of the the three groups of 'experts' least able to run them -lawyers, accountants and civil servants. Leave the franchises pro tem but make them long enough to warrant investment by the holders and transfer track maintenance to them. Then abolish the money launderers who 'own' the rolling stock and leave each operator free to decide what is needed for the traffic.

    Then take us back to the time when if one wished to travel, one presented oneself at the station and bought a ticket. It would be full price during the relatively limited peak hours and cheap outwith them.