Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Back to the future

Conservative-leaning think tank, the Policy Exchange, have published some proposals for railways in the UK. They claim to be looking to the future - what I read was a series of unfortunate echoes of the past, most particularly the Beeching era.

The problem with their proposals is that they’re starting from what is, for me, completely the wrong place. Their basic premise seems to be that the railways are a drain on the public purse which needs to be stemmed, whereas I start from the premise that a switch to rail travel is something to be encouraged on environmental grounds.

Do we want to reduce capacity so as to service only commercially-viable demand, or do we want to add to capacity and stimulate demand? The first approach leads to a switch from rail to road, the second encourages a switch in the opposite direction.

Because they are starting from economics, rather than transport or environmental policy, some of their recommendations look positively perverse to me. For instance, heavier and faster trains cause more wear on the track, so if we use shorter and slower trains, track maintenance costs can be reduced. Another is to allow train companies to run fewer services, or stop at fewer stations if by so doing they can reduce their costs by only carrying the most profitable passengers.

Services from Aberystwyth are amongst those specifically mentioned by them as being ones where "niche operators may be willing to fill the gap..."; but if no-one wants to run such services without subsidy, then 'local people' should be free to decide what happens. "They can have a rail service, with the subsidy paid for locally, or they can choose to keep their cash and the line closes". It is a recipe for undoing the work of the last 20 years to rebuild rail services and encourage people out of their cars – and for removing rail services from much of Wales.

I wouldn’t argue that we should be running empty, or near empty, trains ‘just because’; and the report does make some sensible suggestions about flexibility in franchising and the disincentives that can exist within the franchising approach. But we do need to think about what we want the railway system to achieve – and profitability is not at the top of my list.

The report makes what I consider to be a wholly invalid comparison between the railways and low-cost air services, claiming that those air services "separate the essentials from the nice to have", and yet "still offer a product that people want to use". And that really sums up the huge difference between the approach that they adopt and the approach I think we should be adopting.

The railway system shouldn’t be seen as simply a commercial exercise in responding in the cheapest possible way to a demand for rail travel; it should be seen as something that we positively encourage people to use as an alternative to other forms of travel. And that means that we deliberately need to make it more attractive than the alternatives, not reduce it to the same level.

Attempting to run the railways as an entirely commercial operation was what led to the loss of so much of our rail infrastructure in the past. It’s a step backwards which we should reject.


Rail Enthusiast said...

One of Beaching's biggest mistakes was not to realise that profitless branch lines fed into the very profitable main lines.

If we continue to invest into opening up branch lines (such as the extremely successful Ebbw Vale line) it will make the network much stronger in the long term.

NB: Carwyn is taking his fair time in realising his manifesto promise of commissioning a study to examine the costs and
practicality of reopening the Carmarthen-Aberystwyth line.

John Dixon said...


I think Carwyn's commitment was in his manifesto for election as leader of his party - i.e. in an internal election. It could be argued, therefore, that it's not a commitment made - as yet - to the wider electorate. That doesn't stop either the First Minister or the Transport Minister from pushing it ahead of course. What will be interesting to see is whether the commitment to such a study makes it into Labour'r manifesto for next year. (Or Plaid's come to that; but your comment was aimed specifically at Carwyn.)

Anonymous said...

agree fully, railways offer a public transport alternative on environmental grounds from the combustion engine

Spirit of BME said...

May I just make a few comments on the comparison between low cost airlines and the rail insdustry.
1.Low cost airlines (LCA)took on legacy airlines on point to point routes although the start and end airports might have been different. So the demand was already there.
2.LCA`s built their growth from being offered marginal costs from airport operators and benifing from a down turn demand for aircraft which they bought cheap from a well developed world wide second hand market - which does not exist in rolling stock or in the mindset of Network Rail.
3."niche markets to fill the gap" is coding for non union labour and practice.Well this is a essential for niche operators.

The report has the DNA of youth who have gained confidence that their bed wetting days are over but fear the onset of acne.