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Railwatch 079 - April 1999

Railwatch - A change of track

Rail campaigners are looking for speedy action from Sir Alastair Morton, head of the shadow strategic rail authority.

They are expecting real progress after years of shadow boxing, feasibility studies and public opinion sampling.

Sir Alastair has already defined his role as to plan, negotiate and facilitate, rather than to command and control.

Investment is the Achilles heel of the rail network. Proper recognition of the relative cost and benefits of rail and road must lead to money being available for new lines like CrossRail in London, for reopenings such as East-West links and for an electrification programme.

But a way must also be found to provide cheaper fares so that people do not feel forced to use cars for financial reasons.

The increase in rail freight must be encouraged with cheaper rates and piggyback opportunities so there are far fewer anti-social lorries killing and terrifying people.

There need to be frequent trains, starting early and finishing late, with proper information and through ticketing.

And train operators must stop using inadequate trains. There must be space for large numbers of people — rail's major economic raison d'être — as well as for prams, buggies, luggage, cycles and people in wheelchairs.

The latest victims of a railway focused almost completely on cost are 66 pupils of Bonsall Primary School in Matlock, Derbyshire, who were hoping to go to Skegness, Lincs, for a day of course work.

Central Trains turned away the block booking because their trains do not have enough seats.

Headmaster Mike Campion said: "This is ridiculous. We would need to catch the 8.27am from Derby to do four hours work there and get back for 6pm. It would not be possible to travel by coach, as it would be a very long journey and lots of children would be sick.

"We had also wanted to travel by train to teach the children, some of whom have never been on a train before, about this alternative to roads. We now won't be able to complete the curriculum."

Mr Campion said he was amazed that a line which until recently had been under threat could afford to turn away passengers." Gill James of the Rail Users Consultative Committee, said: "People should be able to travel by train when they want to — that's the whole point."

Central is buying new class 170 trains but it is unlikely that they will make much difference.

Cyclists trying to get to many parts of Wales by train also find the way is blocked by Central — and other operators — running inadequate trains.

Central's sister company Midland Main Line is also under such financial pressure that its new class 170s have been criticised for trying to jam too many passengers in. MP Harry Barnes (Derbyshire NE) said: "We are trying to attract people away from the private car. They want public services which are cheap and comfortable."

RDS general secretary Trevor Garrod, who attended Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's rail summit in February, said there were encouraging statements from the rail professionals who also attended.

After the fragmentation of the 1990s they were learning to co-operate and spread ideas of good practice. They need to.

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