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Railwatch 071 - April 1997

Who will keep the wheels turning?

Adtranz's Derby works and and others in Britain have the capacity to be building and repairing many more rail vehicles than they are handling at the moment. But a change of transport priorities is needed to give a boost for rail investment at the expense of increasing capacity for more road vehicles. The three major parties were invited to explain their transport policies for Railwatch readers.

LABOUR

Gerry Sutcliffe MP for Bradford South

Member of the Labour front-bench transport team

The movement of individuals and the transporting of goods are crucial to the lifeblood of any economy in a country where we are proud to remember our industrial and cultural heritage.

It is therefore sad to see the decline in our ability to activate new and sustainable solutions to the chaos and confusion of existing transport policies.

Where we once led the world in technological and innovative advances we are being overtaken by other nations as we decline in transport infrastructure while they grow.

The privatisation of British Rail has been hailed as an economic success by the Government and that is true for a few people such as the consultants and lawyers who benefited from the £450 million spent on fees.

Railtrack presented its annual accounts and showed profits but on a closer examination the performance owed a lot to the property portfolio movements.

The biggest losers by far have been the consumers and taxpayers who have not received the promised more efficient, more effective rail system, yet continue to subsidise heavily the current system.

Glossy brochures, executive club offers and name changes don't hide the real truth.

Cherry picking of the best and profitable routes has given the impression of progress.

In my own area GNER. has set about attracting increased passenger numbers by offering premium services. In contrast regional and metro railways are unable to attract the investment to meet the needs in urban and rural areas.

How is it going to be possible for over a 100 different companies to offer coordinated structure for rail users?

It is quite interesting to note that after bus de-regulation we saw a 38% decrease in bus passengers and a scarcity of service at particular times of day and in unprofitable rural areas.

Unless there is a more structured approach, then rail will go the same way.

All sensible commentators see the need for an integrated transport strategy especially when the roads programme is dramatically cut.

Congestion and grid lock stares us in the face with all the attendant health and environmental catastrophes.

The opportunity must be grasped to develop the consensus that exists to set about change. The inter-modality of transport provision can be harnessed to provide effective solutions.

It is nonsense that only 6% of freight is moved by rail and that 94% goes by road. The Government grant towards increased freight by rail has been underspent and the Rail Regulator has failed to force greater investment by Railtrack into improving the infrastructure to accommodate extra freight travel.

The economic potential that would be released throughout the UK if this investment took place would help to regenerate many regions currently suffering economic decline.

I look forward to a time when an incoming government is prepared to meet its responsibilities in this vital area of transport policy.

LIBERAL DEMOCRAT

David Chidgey MP for Eastleigh

Transport spokesman

Liberal Democrats are very keen to see greater use of the railways. We welcome the commitment of English Welsh and Scottish Railways to triple rail freight carryings in 10 years.

We would like to see passenger traffic double in the same time scale. Liberal Democrats will work with any other party at national and local level to achieve such targets.

We believe a new government should immediately enact legislation to give powers to a new Secretary of State to give new guidance to the Rail Regulator.

Such guidance would cancel the duty to promote competition between different operators over the same tracks and replace this with a duty to secure growth in the use of the railway.

We believe that having to secure such growth will mean the Regulator will become more active in dealing with issues such as through ticketing and information. We assume by the time of the election all franchises will have been let and other businesses sold. If any franchises remain in the public sector we would expect these to become "arms-length" like Manchester Airport and the remaining municipal bus companies. It is our policy that such public sector companies should be free of the constraints of the PSBR.

We will require the Regulator to review Railtrack's programme for maintenance and renewal which is now so much in arrears, with £330 million unspent funds in the balance sheet. We would expect the Regulator to use dividend caps to prevent the distribution of this money to shareholders.

We would reverse the balance of property income accruing to Railtrack shareholders so that 75% passes to the benefit of rail users.

Because Railtrack is a monopoly and its cost structures are not open to view, we would consider breaking up the company, with the Scottish company made quite separate and the "freight only " lines transferred to the freight operator. This would produce some cost comparisons.

Eventually we hope to take the ownership of the railway "rights of way" back into the public sector with the principal operator being offered the opportunity of managing the infrastructure as part of the franchise agreement. The working timetable would become a public document with all operators able to propose changes. We envisage franchises being re-negotiated to encourage much higher levels of investment in new rolling stock and improved infrastructure.

It is likely that both the Franchise Director's organisation and that of BR will disappear. They may be replaced by a small Strategic Rail Authority which will not run trains but will procure services and new investment - such as CrossRail.

A very important task will be monitoring the franchisees. Liberal Democrats believe franchisees must be held to the letter of their contracts with very swift termination for defaulters. It would be intolerable for users to suffer a protracted period of decline.

The task of monitoring might pass to beefed-up users' councils under the Rail Regulator, provided these councils were made up of users and not political appointees.

Liberal Democrats are very committed to the railways. This also means creating fair competitive conditions by enforcing road traffic law strictly and confronting road users with the costs of pollution congestion and other environmental damage.

We will do all we can to promote bus use, walking and cycling and the use of environmentally friendly, fuel efficient road transport.

TORY

John Watts MP for Slough

Minister for Railways and Roads

1996 was the year of the train. We saw the start of the first regular private passenger services for half a century. South West Trains and Great Western began the new era for the railways with plans for more services, bus links to stations, and higher Passenger Charter standards. We now have 19 lines in private hands and I am confident we will have all 25 franchised before the election.

Our critics, most notably the Labour Party and its pay-masters in the trade unions, have been silenced. It is now obvious even to them that our policy of putting the railways into the private sector has been a success.

The Conservative Government has safeguarded services through contracts and fares frozen to the retail price index for the first time ever. We have given guarantees to passengers they never had under the old BR.

Important as these promises are, it is the reality of what the new operators are doing which has swung public opinion behind privatisation. Take National Express and the Midland Main Line. National Express will run 22 more services a day to Leicester from London, and 10 more a day each to Nottingham and Derby.

The Office of Passenger Franchising has already reported improvements in punctuality and reliability of these private services, and many operators are reporting increases in passenger numbers. The Central Rail Users Consultative Committee has reported a 30% reduction in passenger complaints on franchised lines.

The new operators are also investing heavily in improving the quality of the carriages.

More attention is being paid to the needs of passengers. For instance GNER gives them free tea and coffee on the Intercity East Coast line up to Scotland.

Station facilities are also being improved with better waiting rooms, the introduction closed circuit TV, and better lighting to ensure greater security in stations and car parks. Already, these measures have cut down on crimes and encouraged more people to park and ride.

What is truly impressive is that all these new services, new investment, and higher standards will be achieved for less public subsidy. Last year, the grant BR received for these 18 lines was £1,015 million. For the first year of the franchises, the subsidy is only £900 million.

However, by the seventh year of the franchise, the subsidy falls dramatically to only £267 million. Thus, these extra services will need about a quarter of the subsidy given to BR in 1995/96. So privatisation is good news for passengers and taxpayers alike.

The second half of this success story is the flotation on the Stock Market of Railtrack, the owner of all the track, signalling and most stations. Conservatives have always believed in wider ownership since this gives people a real stake in the future of businesses.

Putting Railtrack into the private sector has lifted the burden of investment from taxpayers. Railtrack is committed to investing £8 billion over the next five years - a rate impossible under nationalisation when rail has to compete with the NHS, schools and police for public funds.

I am determined that we will have better public transport so that more people will feel able to make the choice to leave the car at home and travel by train.

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