Select Committee on Transport Written Evidence

Memorandum by Railfuture (FOR 117)


  Railfuture, the Railway Development Society, is pleased to submit evidence addressing various issues raised by the Committee for its inquiry into the future role of the railways in the UK, following the Rail Regulator's observation that ". . . the Victorians' legacy . . . (was a) . . . precious network of narrow land corridors . . . and to turn them into roads would be just an unbelievable waste . . ." and the railways were ". . . a system which the country needs . . ." We totally agree with Mr Tom Winsor on this issue.

  Railfuture is an independent body representing the views of its members as rail users. We have campaigned to improve the rail network for nearly 50 years, both nationally and through our regional branches. During that time we have seen a major contraction in the size of the network, but a maintenance of passenger levels using the smaller system that remains. Clearly in some areas the railway is doing something right, and actually rather better than it did 40 years ago!

Is the Regulator right, or is rail an outmoded form of transport?

  The Regulator is quite right, provided that competent management and expedient planning ensures the railway network is used effectively and efficiently. A well run railway system is essential to the national economy, and is expected and taken for granted by large sections of the British public, including those who may not be regular rail users. Even "Mondeo Man" and "Worcester Woman" want a convenient and affordable train when their cars are not available.

Is the present network the right one; if not, how should it be changed?

  It is recognised that some contraction of the network built in the 19th Century was inevitable but there is little doubt some line closures that occurred between the late 1950s through to the early 1970s removed essential routes from the system. Between 1960 and 1990, ongoing treasury constraints led to a further capacity reduction in the remaining network. This now must be corrected with careful planning to eliminate the "gaps" and "bottlenecks", provide alternative routes and expand urban services. This should proceed alongside ongoing planning and development of some major new projects, including electrification, urban systems and high speed routes.

What sort of traffic is the network best used for?

  Conventional thought assumes rail is best suited to commuter traffic into towns and cities, medium to long distance passenger journeys and heavy freight movement. We do not concur with the view of many so-called professionals that rail should focus only on major long-distance or inter-urban flows, high density commuter routes and heavy or long distance freight to the exclusion of local, stopping or rural passenger services. Rail also has a role in regeneration and regional development, carrying local urban and rural traffic where road links are congested or inadequate, and it can play an important role in preventing social exclusion, encouraging tourism and sustaining local economies.

How does our network compare with other railways?

  Networks are being expanded in many countries, not surprising, since rail has many advantages over road including safety, speed, economy of land use, less environmental pollution, etc. Britain's railways are often seen in a poor light alongside our European counterparts. Some comparisons are unfair as certain aspects of our railways are actually quite good! Around the world railways are expanding—new high speed lines in Europe, commuter railways throughout Europe, increasingly in the USA and now some third world cities, and a new 2,000 km rail line to Darwin in Australia. Why should the UK be different?

What lessons can we learn from other countries?

  Most fundamentally for Government to secure an investment strategy that maintains and improves the existing network while developing and delivering entirely new infrastructure, such as Crossrail or new high-speed lines. The restructuring of timetables to provide regular interval services over the national network, following continental models, and bravely attempted by Virgin Cross Country's Operation Princess plan, is an objective the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) and train operating companies (TOCs) must work towards.

  In this evidence we will focus primarily on whether the present network is the right one, how it should be developed to meet the needs of an increasingly mobile society within an expanding economy and as part of a national sustainable transport policy, in which rail transport is an essential element.


  1.1  The Rail Regulator's view is entirely right. It is absurd to suggest that rail is utmoded, just because it has experienced a difficult period in the UK. These difficulties stemmed from political interference and maladministration that created a fundamentally flawed management structure in pursuit of a political objective; a privatisation process led by the dogma of a few political advisers and sadly, several prominent civil servants.

  1.2  The legacy of the railways in the UK today developed from the middle of the 19th Century, initially within a free market economy that lacked any national strategic planning process. The Big 4 railway grouping in 1923 and nationalisation in 1948 were both symptomatic of the need to establish and invest in a cohesive network and develop uniform standards in an industry that suffered declining investment and returns during the preceding 50 years.

  1.3  This legacy however has neither been adequately maintained nor developed to meet the needs of a modern society though rational and consistent planning and sustained investment. This is clearly the duty of Government and presently is the responsibility of the SRA to deliver. While British Railways (BR) sought to develop viable strategies and achieved considerable levels of standardisation, these economies of scale have been lost following privatisation.

  1.4  The present problems of railways in the UK, including cost escalation and unreliability, are largely the consequence of that flawed privatisation process, one strongly criticised by the Transport Select Committee in its report The Future of the Railways in the Light of Government's White Paper Proposals, published on 27 April 1993. [1]

  1.5  Most of these problems were not inherent in the rail industry itself whilst nationalised; they can and must be brought under control, but this will require a fundamental rethink of the present industry structure. Railfuture has described this period from 1993 as "10 Wasted Years" but despite the recent problems, rail passenger and freight traffic continues to grow where it is able to do so.


  2.1  The railway mania of the second half of the 19th Century clearly led to over-provision of rail capacity in some areas, resulting in unnecessary duplication to some smaller towns and centres. But a century later the accountancy and Treasury-led fiscal policy towards transport investment, reinforced by the infamous report, The Reshaping of British Railways, prepared by the Chairman of the British Railways Board, Dr Richard Beeching in 1963 under a brief drafted by the Minister of Transport, Ernest Marples MP (later Lord Marples), led to a road focus and bias against rail that has dominated transport thinking and policy for 40 years.

  2.2  Some Beeching era line and station closures were inevitable. However several routes, including some that had a strategic role and not identified by Beeching, such as Oxford to Cambridge, were closed in the late '60s and early '70s. This was partly due to shortcomings in the (Castle) Transport Act 1968, as funding arrangements for these unremunerative services were not secured. Thus the present network is below the optimum required to operate all national, regional and local passenger services effectively, and allow capacity for growth. Freight expansion is similarly constrained.

  2.3  In retrospect it became evident that other reductions in network capacity over a 30 year period, from the mid 1960s to the late 1990s, were excessive and detrimental to performance on the railway, particularly as traffic had steadily grown on many routes. The removal of "wasteful" duplication was reluctantly accepted, but the stringent financial regime enforced by treasury constraints meant what remained suffered inadequate investment and a continuing reduction in route capacity, and for some minor lines or stations, a lingering death.

  2.4  The best example of inappropriate capacity reduction was the former Great Western—now Chiltern—Route from Birmingham and Banbury to London. Chris Green, then MD for British Railways' (BR) Inter-City sector explained to the Committee in 1993 ". . . there was not enough volume (of rail traffic) to justify two rival railways to Birmingham. It was much more efficient to put them onto one railway . . ." (s71 HoC 246-1 1992-03). Experience showed the policy was badly flawed, as it assumed no growth at the intermediate towns served on the old GW route. The problem was that an inadequate supply of rail services choked off demand, demonstrating a failure to satisfy a suppressed market demand, eventually released by the Chiltern Railways operation, one of the few successes of privatisation.

  2.5  This meant that effective utilisation of existing network capacity became critical, due apparently to Railtrack "overselling" train paths on some routes but failing to ensure necessary capacity upgrades had taken place. The Cherwell Valley route between Leamington Spa and Banbury, now used by Chiltern Railways, is one example where inadequate mechanical signalling meant new services, such as Chiltern's second train each hour from London Marylebone to Birmingham, has had to be curtailed for much of the day until new signalling is completed. Similarly in the Birmingham area, restoration of former tracks between Dorridge and Tyseley and on the approaches to Birmingham's rebuilt Moor Street Station would improve capacity for Chiltern, Virgin Xc and permit local Centro trains to stop at stations in deprived inner-city districts. There are many other examples across the UK, particularly on the approaches to the major regional city centres and within the conurbations.

  2.6  Railfuture was one of various groups which argued for more investment in railways, not less, since the '60s, and our concerns proved well founded. This was further vindicated by the many station re-openings and route restorations that have taken place over the last 30 years, recorded in our publication The A-Z of Rail Re-openings. Many have been supported and promoted by the Passenger Transport Executives (PTEs) and Local Authorities (LAs). (A copy of A-Z could be provided to the Committee if required.)

  2.7  Development of the national network must focus first on "Delivering the Deliverable" over the next decade. This can be best achieved through a myriad of small to medium investment projects, such as the incremental output schemes identified by the SRA, PTEs, TOCs and LAs. These show the way forward, with funding through both the Rail Passenger Partnership and Rail Performance Fund. These were intended to deliver improvements in bite-size chunks at a realistic cost. We are very concerned these programmes were victims of Treasury fiscal constraints imposed on the SRA as these small incremental output projects often yield the greatest benefits for the least money. Funding for some primarily local rail projects should also should be available through Local Transport Plans. Notwithstanding the importance of smaller schemes, the SRA must also identify and develop certain essential major capital projects such as Crossrail or a high-speed route northwards from London.

  2.8  The SRA must also plan and deliver an Alternative Routing Strategy, designed to ensure main centres are linked to minimise disruption when one route is not available due to strategic maintenance, infrastructure works or in an emergency such as an accident. BR sought to maintain some alternative contingency routes, and the benefits of a functioning alternative from London to Birmingham was well demonstrated in 1969 when a crash near Roade Junction blocked the West Coast route. Despite track rationalisation a functional service operated almost immediately with minimum disruption to New Year's Eve passengers via the former Great Western, now Chiltern, route as trains were diverted to Paddington. Due the growth in services over both routes this hardly ever happens now.

  2.9  More recently the extent of disruption caused by both the Hatfield and Potters Bar crashes could have been significantly reduced if the alternative Hertford Loop were improved with passing loops at an intermediate station (Gordon Hill) where in future London Metro services might also terminate. Designing in operating flexibility with loops and extra signalling would increase route capacity, and by restructuring suburban services, this incremental scheme could significantly ease pressure at the Welwyn Viaduct capacity bottleneck over the next decade.

  2.10  Filling the gaps in the network will be an important element of the process of developing an effective alternative routing strategy and putting right the errors of the '60s. Beeching style cuts removed many lines and services that not only left areas un-served but many other possible alternative routes were removed, reducing operational flexibility. Careful rationalisation with revitalisation of residual services was required but not always achieved. There were some notable exceptions, like the East Suffolk Line where the late Gerard Feinnes (the BR Regional Manager) introduced a rationalisation strategy over 30 years ago that retained a basic service and which still meets many needs of the communities served today.

  2.11  Restoring capacity to the network is essential but even the simplest projects are thwarted by bureaucracy and now spiralling costs. Railfuture argues this is partly due to the dysfunctional management structure in the industry, and inordinate bureaucracy, such as the Transport & Works Act procedures. This means the delivery of road schemes is simpler and quicker, whether promoted by the Highways Agency or a local authority. Management processes for roads are also simpler. The often excessive requirements of the HSE also impinge more heavily on rail than for other modes, both in work methods and costs.

  2.12  The success of various route reopening projects is now recognised and acknowledged by politicians, economists and accountants, ie those who advise the politicians as well as the planners and managers of the rail network. Reinstating and reopening key feeder lines, examples include Edinburgh-Bathgate, Bridgend-Maesteg, Nottingham-Mansfield-Worksop and Walsall-Rugeley, have been very successful. Traffic levels and income invariably exceeded predictions. Also most of these re-opening projects occurred under the old BR structure, whereas several ongoing projects have stalled over the last few years.

  2.13  Rising costs and bureaucracy have impeded progress since privatisation but these problems are not insurmountable. Many communities which lost their rail service are seeking reinstatement of these lines, road replacement services having failed. One missed opportunity and an obvious restoration candidate is the Oxford to Cambridge East-West Rail link. Twenty years ago Railfuture argued that mainly by using existing routes, only 15 miles of new construction would be required to re-establish a major cross-country passenger route. This would serve important and growing centres such as Bedford, Milton Keynes and Aylesbury, where major housing growth is planned, provide connections with several radial routes from London and re-establish links between regional centres in East Anglia through the Home Counties and South Midlands to the West of England. Local authorities set up the East-West Rail Consortium and employed Jim Steer (then with Steer Davies Gleave) as consultant to demonstrate the scheme was viable and that it would also help generate new traffic on the existing network. The route could also be an important freight artery from the East Anglian ports, providing relief for busy roads and congested parts of the rail network closer to London. The lack of progress demonstrates an abject failure of strategy and planning, particularly as two multi-modal studies have recommended the scheme be prioritised in the SRA's strategy. Failure to deliver this project demonstrates the failure of Government policy, the role of agencies like the SRA and the present structure of the railways.

  2.14  Planning and building high speed lines beyond London ought to follow on from completion of the new Channel Tunnel Rail Link. These would provide much needed relief from congestion on the existing rail and road networks, making services from regional centres to the European mainland viable and avoid the need for excessive airport expansion which is unacceptable on environmental grounds.

  2.15  Good planning practice requires considering the role of rail alongside other transport modes. So many politicians and planners have not done so, and fail to understand how railways may complement or compete with the other modes. This was the purpose of Multi-Modal studies and the delivery of outputs from those studies appear to promote many road but very few rail based schemes. We hope any conclusions the Committee may make will put cogent arguments for balanced investment between modes. Present Government and local planning policies suggests there is not much joined-up thinking.


  3.1  The railway has moved on from its role as common carrier and the requirement to provide the daily "parliamentary train"; a service for all comers at one penny per mile! Nevertheless the lack of even basic services on several routes and at certain lightly used stations is very unsatisfactory. Services should enable potential passengers to fulfil basic travel needs, such as getting to and from work; on some lines this simply is not possible. The role of rail in social inclusion was overlooked in the service specifications set out by the Franchising Director and is still lacking in some aspects of the SRA's and TOCs' agenda.

  3.2  It is widely accepted that the focus on major long-distance or inter-urban flows is fundamental to the role of rail. The Inter-City identity became entrenched in rail terminology, despite the fact that none of the present operators use this branding, many people, both staff and passengers still use the term. This "brand" indicated quality, speed and service standards and the concept should be revisited. However while we recognise the importance of service frequency, there is concern that some train operators have attempted to overdo it. Whether the Birmingham to London West Coast Virgin-Stagecoach service can justify a quarter-hourly inter-city type express throughout the day is questionable, when this aspiration will kill off a widely used but slower service operated by Nat-Ex Silverlink. Railfuture questions the SRA's assessment of priorities. Some adjustment to the current proposal is needed so that at least one through train serves the intermediate centres hourly.

  3.3  Rail is also fundamental to conveying high density commuter flows, primarily in London and the South East. Rail also moves some quite significant flows in the regions. These have developed over time on many routes into our larger provincial cites. This is an important growth market and an essential element of sustainable regional transport policies.

  3.4  Despite the devolved responsibilities passed to the PTEs as metropolitan transport authorities, under the Transport Act 1968, development of their services has been constrained by budgetary limits imposed by the Treasury and Department for Transport. The PTEs showed that good local rail services can be successful, but the ramification of this is that while many services improved over routes that survived, others, particularly those serving deprived inner city areas are still inadequate. In the West Midlands several freight or closed but intact lines have successfully re-opened. While Birmingham's local rail network has seen steady growth due to a strong commitment from the PTE (Centro) over the last 30 years, it has not expanded to the extent it could have done, due primarily to Government inertia in promoting rail schemes. Nevertheless Birmingham now has the busiest single local rail service outside London, over a route once put up for closure by Beeching.

  3.5  Major rail projects were progressed in two conurbations during the 1970s, around Liverpool and Glasgow, but neither Merseyside nor Strathclyde PTEs were able to complete their urban metro-style rail networks. Although Tyne & Wear, Greater Manchester and South Yorkshire developed light rail networks, relatively few major new works on conventional urban railways were completed over the last 20 years. Again this is due more to a lack of political will than an inability to demonstrate the need to upgrade these rail services, such as in South East Manchester, where the restoration of track capacity could permit significant enhancement to several local services. The Merseyrail Electric network could easily be improved with new inner-city stations and extensions towards Skelmersdale and Deeside, delivering a metro system comparable with many European cities that will boost jobs, regeneration and promote social inclusion. These were detailed in earlier Railfuture memoranda to the Committee.

  3.6  Due to the dispersed pattern of poly-nuclear centres in conurbations, some smaller but nevertheless sizeable towns in their own right, such as Bury or Walsall, may have one good core service to and from the main centre, but do not enjoy the benefit of a comprehensive service network fully integrated with local buses. We are concerned to hear yet again of differences between the SRA and the PTEs over levels of support and track capacity allocation for local services, as there are many routes where train frequencies could and should enjoy enhancement. The Government must work with both the PTEs and the SRA to invest in these urban networks, particularly as many local trains can operate discretely from fast longer distance services and traffic growth can be accommodated more easily.

  3.7  The viability of the franchise system must be questioned. The present system has failed to deliver savings the proponents of privatisation claimed it would. The suggestion that longer franchises could bear more private sector risk has been abandoned and the SRA is mainly extending franchises as management contracts with higher subsidies. The highest cost the TOCs bear is vehicle leasing and track access charges, and these costs have risen, issues that also need further investigation and evaluation. Railfuture believes there may be a case to bring some train operation back in house, following Network Rail's lead. The SRA's Kent operation from January 2004 should be carefully monitored and the outputs analysed. The present industry structure is unstable, and the sooner a new one emerges, the better.

  3.8  Rail-freight movement should be increasing but again growth is limited by capacity constraints. We endorse the views of both operators and the Rail Freight Group that any proposals simply to cut route maintenance could stifle further growth at a time when major road widening is planned to accommodate increasing HGV movements. Rail's reliability was demonstrated by ASDA Wal-Mart group's comment, quoted in both Rail and Local Transport Today that "Trains arrive within 30 minutes of their scheduled arrival time in 90% of cases which is much better than road", indicative that modern "just-in-time" logistics networks can rely on rail-freight, demonstrated by the success of the DIRFT freight transfer facility near Daventry. The current debacle over mail trains demonstrates that a comprehensive and reliable rail-freight system should be part of both Royal Mail and other parcel operators' logistics networks. The Government must make the need to grow rail-freight and promote modal switch a clear policy objective, through appropriate directions to the SRA.


  4.1  UK rail operators offer comparable standards of rolling stock and customer care on many routes to those of our European counterparts. Premium and high speed services generally offer good quality rolling stock throughout the UK. The exceptional characteristics and performance of the Mk 3 carriage used in the HST 125 diesel trains and most electric trains on the West Coast route has not been perpetuated in more recent designs, making Voyager Cross-Country trains rather inferior to their latest European equivalents. It is interesting that despite a less frequent service between Belfast and Dublin, the joint IR-NIR Enterprise gets more plaudits from passengers than many mainland UK routes.

  4.2  While the Netherlands and Swiss railways generally offer better regional service networks than in the UK, certain UK services offer higher frequencies on secondary and rural routes than European systems. However the lack of an equivalent Parisian RER service network for London shows investment in our capital's rail network has lagged way behind Paris and other principal centres. This must be redressed. The option to upgrade existing routes is not being addressed either. The inordinate delay in proceeding with the London Orbirail project (based on Railfuture's Outer Circle concept and adopted by the Mayor), linking routes into the East London Line, demonstrates a lack of both initiative and political will. The SRA's usual response, "Orbirail is difficult", indicates managerial inexperience through an inability to realise that significant operational benefits may flow from planning and delivering relatively simple projects for upgrading and improving existing infrastructure. These schemes need not place a particularly heavy burden or demand on resources if carefully planned and managed.

  4.3  Lessons can be learnt here from the German model where local and regional government has greater involvement with service provision and delivery of regional services. Rural lines could be run more efficiently while providing more frequent trains under the micro-franchise arrangement currently under study by the Association of Community Rail Partnerships (ACoRP) and the SRA. Infrastructure would be maintained on a scale appropriate to the level and speed of traffic. Local management, operation and promotion rather than central control could provided extra facilities to meet local needs and is this is increasingly a feature of some European railway systems.

  4.4  Railways that are working safely to simpler technical specifications can reduce costs, and local "ownership" should ensure the railways are more responsive to local needs. As this concept is at last being considered here the success of Community Rail Partnerships if effectively supported and funded by Government should show what can be achieved to enhance service provision and operating economics alongside the development of light vehicles for rural or minor services.

  4.5  Another benefit from European practice is the need for network-wide electrification. The environmental benefits are well known, but it seems the operating benefits of electric traction is recognised everywhere else except the UK. The financial case for major trunk route projects may be difficult to make, but there should be a small ongoing programme to electrify the links between routes and enlarge existing networks, particularly urban and commuter routes radiating from a main centre where electric trains already operate. The importance of infill electrification schemes along with capacity enhancements cannot be stressed enough.

  4.6  Filling the gaps will reduce the impact of any disruption and the SRA's decision to electrify the line from Crewe to Kidsgrove endorses this. Over the next five years the SRA must develop electrification packages as part of its Alternative Routing Strategy and minimise the need for bustitution. The SRA has not included two similar infill electrification projects in the West Coast Main Line Route Modernisation that would minimise disruption during the Trent Valley Line works. This will affect all London trains from Crewe and beyond, also Liverpool, Manchester and Stoke. Electrifying lines between Coventry and Nuneaton through to Birmingham, and also between Walsall and Rugeley, will ensure new Pendolino trains can operate under their own power and not need special diesel locomotives. Each route has a dual function, firstly as essential diversionary routes for WCML trains, but a secondary benefit of enhanced Centro electric local services that could also serve some new stations along the routes. If our railways are to have a successful future, simple strategic thinking is essential.

  In conclusion, unless the railways, and this means Government, the SRA and the industry, cannot control costs, our railways have a bleak future. Privatisation created new cost centres at the operating margins, and these now have to be paid for. The Transport Committee in 1993 identified many potential problems that might cause costs to increase. Is it surprising these have been proved right? [2]

    —  There was no incentive for Railtrack (now Network Rail) to act efficiently without strict performance targets. Now, even after Railtrack's demise the efficiency question is under close scrutiny by the Rail Regulator.

    —  Profits taken out of a profitable franchise would not be available to cross-subsidise loss makers; subsidies have risen way beyond the levels paid to BR. These are now reflected in management contracts, higher subsidy bids along with extra top-up payments. Private sector rescue bids and ongoing management contracts have cost more than if BR had run the service, another option the Committee had advocated but apparently no longer possible.

  One of the 1993 Committee's conclusions (s501 HoC 246-1 1992-93) was that ". . . there must be a possibility that . . . . the cost to the taxpayer of providing the same level of services will actually rise . . .". Neither Railfuture nor the Committee expected costs to rise that astronomically, and clearly neither did the proponents of privatisation. The Committee continued ". . . This is irrespective of the case we have argued for higher investment in the railway system."

  This clearly shows the privatisation experiment was badly flawed, has largely proved a failure, and the faults must now be put right. Those who advocated and supported polices that created the present dysfunctional and fragmented operation, and seek to perpetuate it, should be now be brought to account. The UK cannot afford another "10 Wasted Years" of failing to develop our ". . . extraordinarily precious . . ." and essential national and local railway network ". . . which the country needs . . .".

Richard Pout BSc Econ, MILT

Policy Officer

October 2003

1   Transport Committee's Second Report of the 1992-93 Session HoC 246-1. Back

2   Transport Committee's Second Report of the 1992-93 Session HoC 246-1 ss 497-501. Back

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