Select Committee on Transport Written Evidence

Memorandum by Mark Blathwayt (FOR 120)


  Those who make decisions about the future of the railways must first address important questions about the sort of railway many people say they want and the sort of railway that is needed by the country as a whole. This is not necessarily the same thing.

  The few matters raised here can only point towards a more comprehensive list of questions that I hope may encourage a view that the operation of the railways needs to be both efficient and compassionate in the way it meets people's needs.

  Is it true that a railway run to meet strongest demand risks missing its equally important vocation to provide for those in greatest need, those who might otherwise be squeezed to the margin?

  Will our railway recognise, that in the long term, its future depends on being as relevant to the less well off, the young, the old and the isolated, as anyone else and must include those who have special needs like bicyclists and people who use wheelchairs?

  How will railways respond to the economic imperatives of those charged with the task of encouraging jobs and tourist visitors and better housing in the remoter areas of the United Kingdom and in the National Parks, and can it be seen that this must include the regeneration of urban areas and rural regions as a whole not just town centres and business parks?

  Can railways be reliable in focusing on the needs both of passengers and the priorities of those seeking to dispatch and receive goods? Do they understand what it means to be little businesses in the remoter areas of Scotland for whom even the Scottish border may be 7½ hours away by road?

  How soon will those looking at the future of the railways understand the potential of such remote communities as North Devon and the Exmoor National Park in Somerset, who seek to build sustainable transport links, open to all, which are recognised as fundamental to local economic and social and environmental growth? Links are needed to foster the local economy not to broaden the commuter based dormitory suburb habit to un-addicted communities.

  A railway must be a social railway that includes and encourages us all. Can those running railways in the future grasp that they hold the key element that unlocks the economic and social potential of all parts of the United Kingdom in a rational and sustainable way?

  Can the railway lobby and operators recognise that decisions they make can distort land values and disrupt a balanced development process that makes the best of land use in all Britain?


  When a strategy for the railways is formulated, how is a balance struck between the need for speed and the need for greater diversity of capacity on the network? How is this question similar to the familiar brain teaser of how to integrate best, the needs of bicyclists and those who use wheelchairs, with the needs of other passengers?

  Is it possible to find a better way for both Inter City and local and regional trains to share the same track? On motorways at times of peak traffic flows, reducing the speed limit from 70mph to 50mph, for an hour or so, increases the number of vehicles able to use the road per hour while also reducing congestion. Is the same true on railways?

  Why was the response of the Strategic Rail Authority to delays on the Great Western line from Paddington to Bristol merely to axe the well used direct service between Bristol and Oxford via Bath which took just over an hour? Was thought applied to the fact that all three cities have significant traffic difficulties that cannot be met simply by building extra capacity for private motor cars? Since the axing of this service, journey times by rail between these important manufacturing and university cities have increased to about two hours with at least one, often two, changes. For some journeys this even includes a great dog-leg via Reading, which is already a congested station. Not easy for anyone , worse if you use a wheelchair or bicycle. As a direct consequence, at peak times on the Bristol-Bath-Paddington service, crowding conditions are worse as Oxford and Banbury passengers squeeze on too.

  The usual wholly unsatisfactory response in the past to such a phenomenon was to increase ticket prices to discourage demand or to exclude the bearers of cheaper tickets. In the meantime, is the apparent increase in car journeys made between the three cities considered desirable?

  What can be drawn from this small local example?

  Is it important that rail services between the regions of a country and the capital city enable provincial businesses to have reliable access to the capital whenever needed?

  Is a service that is good value, safe predictable and reliable the main requirement?

  Is it true to say that whether any given journey takes 75 minutes or 95 or 120 minutes is of less importance to most people than that it should be comfortable on board and that it can be relied on to leave and arrive when it is timetabled to do so? In that way plans and meetings can be made reliably and efficiently.

  How far is it true to say that for some groups of people the most important aspect of train travel to the capital is speed?

  Can it be denied that if extra speed can generate extra passenger capacity albeit on an improved West Coast Mainline or Channel tunnel rail link it is "a good thing"?

  How should a search for speed on some services be regarded if that has the effect of extinguishing other services?


  If it is accepted that transport and development are part of the same endeavour, should we be concerned if the discounts given to long distance commuters mean that peak hour trains are overfull and less frequent local business passengers, whose need to travel may be just as great, are effectively unable to travel because ticket prices are kept artificially high in order to suppress demand from ordinary passengers and to ensure regular commuters get a seat?

  Do fast long distance commuter trains have significant effects on the supply and demand for housing in commuter belt towns and villages? Are speed improvements alone responsible for a shortage of houses that can be afforded by the non-commuting population on local incomes?

  Are the energy efficiencies of rail being neglected? Are the environmental advantages of rail being overlooked and too much credence given to the artificial cheapness of air travel? There are extra energy costs as speed increases. The faster a TGV, Eurostar or domestic train travels the more power it requires from power stations or the the greater the fuel consumption. Should the energy costs of greater speed be considered along with the squeezing effect on other services? Is a most encouraging dynamic the possibility that investment in new lines can liberate extra capacity on former principal routes that can then be used for extra freight and subsidiary passenger services?


  Does the relative isolation of the extremities of the country matter to the rest? How important is rail in giving the sense of connectedness to the rest of the country that may be missing from inter-regional air travel and which is impractical by road?

  To what extent can an effective national rail network take the pressure off London and the south-east?

  Can better rail networks and services in the country as a whole reduce the demand for building in metropolitan areas and the south east?


  Wheelchair users and cyclists still get a raw deal. On many trains it is impossible for a family or small group to travel together. It takes little imagination to see how the problems arise. What is sometimes misleadingly referred to as tokenism is all too often evidence of structural and institutional prejudice that discriminates.

  While it is true that mini buses and private cars play an important role in the life of the nation as a whole it remains true for us all that they are not the whole answer. Railways once played a more important and effective role in the lives of the wheelchair user than they do now even though the facilities then were not as good then as now.

  Once, there were no special facilities at all, but the basic provision though inconvenient, was flexible and elastic, even if primitive. It was able to accommodate whoever wished to travel, with help from railway staff. Now, carefully engineered and integrated wheelchair facilities found in the new rolling stock must be commended. For some people the independence and dignity afforded gives a better journey than ever before. For this the Department for Transport Mobility and Inclusion Unit must take great credit. However there is no room for complacency.

  Where there is a limited number of spaces on a train it is seldom possible to be as flexible as in the past. If a train that pulls into a station has an inflexibly low number of wheelchair spaces that are already occupied, the intending wheelchair traveller is expected to wait "as any other passenger finding a train is full". Waiting for the next train if you are a wheelchair user, is not the same as being an ordinary passenger finding a train is full. If you are just a foot passenger and the train is full, then no-one gets on the train . . . everyone is in the same predicament. If you are in a wheelchair and you see others get on but not you because there is a shortage of wheelchair spaces—that is discrimination.

  It is that simple, structural, institutional, inflexible attitude of mind that the Department for Transport will not clearly and unequivocally call discrimination. Why not?


  Anyone living within 20 miles of an airport or within earshot of a motorway will acknowledge that in terms of land use, energy conservation, pollution control, noise, safety and a pleasant quiet environment, railways are best on many counts.

  An efficient affordable railway is the single most important key to balanced sustainable development of the United Kingdom.

  The Railway management and politicians must stop acting as if a railway was only there as a last resort for those whose cars get in stuck in jams and whose aeroplanes are unable to fly.

  Instead why not look to see how the railway can again be the natural first choice? So often in the past people have been put off even asking (the concept of un-expressed demand) or discouraged by inadequate service when they do by being told there is not enough room, as happens all the time on Eurostar (known as suppressed demand). No one is prepared to take all the co-ordinated steps, including safety, that would permit more wheelchair users onto trains including Eurostar.

  If, Europe wide, Railway policy was more transparent and less driven by dogma, would it be easier for the system to work? What central interferences, at a European level, face European Railways including railways in Britain that increase "bureau-crazy" but make user responsive service provision more awkward? Shouldn't it be recognised that this and artificially low air fares may be discouraging investment in INTER REGIONAL TRAINS such as the Grampians-Pyrenees Express that would really help the business and tourist businesses of the remoter regions of Europe? Why in Switzerland do such policies work? How is it done?

  A country, more so a continent, that really learns and develops the art of making a railway fully accessible to those who use wheelchairs or to bicyclists, will discover, along the way, what makes the railway a better and safer place for everyone else. This is a gift, a special contribution, that the wheelchair using and cycling constituencies offer to the rest of society.

Mark Blathwayt

14 November 2003

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