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Railwatch 080 - July 1999

Mind the policy gap

There appear to be gaping holes in the Government's transport and rail policies. Government policy is very much like Railtrack's £27billion wish list which was announced in March with a thousand PR trumpets.

With Railtrack, the question is how motivated it is to invest properly in the railway, rather than cream off taxpayers' money into profits for shareholders.

To a lesser extent, it is also a question of whether Railtrack will have the resources necessary to do the job. It has already shown tremendous potential for blocking progress. With the Government, it appears to be a question of how much of an improvement in public transport it can achieve quickly.

So many things are in limbo.

The Government has not yet decided whether to pay subsidies to the train operators or direct to Railtrack. The Strategic Rail Authority, and its chairman Sir Alastair Morton, is not really up and running yet, let alone giving any kind of direction.

There is a new Rail Regulator (Tom Winsor) and we are hoping he will make a powerful impact. There is a new Franchise Director (Mike Grant) who has started by announcing details of the Rail Passenger Partnership funding scheme.

Regional transport policy is still being argued about in a series of forums that have often excluded rail campaigners. The transport authority for London - which is at the centre of so much rail infrastructure - is not even in being yet. Local Transport Plans which will run for five years are being drawn up now - before planners steeped in the culture of road building have been told just what the rail sector is capable of. There are no schemes yet for proper charging of road users while rail users pay high charges and fares. This is probably the most significant obstacle for most people in switching to rail.

Someone, somewhere - maybe even the diehards in the Department of Transport - has whispered to the local planners that the road lobby would be happy with guided busways on railways, whereas what we all need is more bus lanes on existing roads. The new Commission for Integrated Transport, led by David Begg, also appears to be ready to back expensive guided busways at the expense of well-proved rail.

The Scottish Parliament has transport functions while the Welsh parliament does not. The train operating companies are awash with passengers to the extent that they are pricing some of them off and cramming them into unsuitable vehicles. They don't seem able or willing to expand their vision and equipment sufficiently to recognise that, although in the past two years, rail travel has grown twice as fast as car travel, the potential is far, far greater. The current rail infrastructure is not being used effectively with stations being destaffed and even detrained to save a few pounds. Often the roads outside the stations are crammed with traffic.

The operators' main concern seems to be whether there is a future for them at the end of the current franchises, rather than how well they can serve their passengers now.

We hope there is positive action from the new director general of the Association of Train Operators, George Muir. Much of the time since rail privatisation has been spent on deciding the size of directors' salaries, cutting staff and re-painting trains.

While Sir Robert Horton was chairman of Railtrack, London's CrossRail scheme - which would have integrated Tube services with an East-West main line link - has been shelved.

From 1993 - when Railtrack was formed and Sir Robert became chairman - up to 1997, Tube patronage went up by 8.5% and surface rail patronage by 14%.

New rail capacity is required as it was in 1993 but the issue is not being addressed with sufficient urgency. When Sir Robert became chairman, an article on the front page of Railwatch said: "We are still waiting for proper go-aheads for a whole series of rail projects - Thameslink 2000, the Channel Tunnel fast link, CrossRail, Dornoch, electrification of the midland main line and upgrading the West Coast main line."

Work has started on part of the Channel Tunnel fast link - thanks to John Prescott - and on the West Coast main line upgrade. There is still a lot to do.

Meanwhile in Paris, cross-city rail and metro lines continue to proliferate. The latest Meteor line, now running, is designed to relieve overcrowding in central Paris, just what London's CrossRail scheme was aiming to do.

Unfortunately Railtrack's current Network Management Statement, the nearest thing Britain has to an official rail strategy, becomes more vague the more you examine it.

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