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Railwatch 081 - October 1999

A chance to advance

For the first time for many years, America has faster trains than Britain, further proof of how much ground we have lost in almost 10 years of reorganisation associated with rail privatisation.

French-built Acela high-speed trains will be zooming along Amtrak's North West corridor between Washington, New York and Boston at speeds of up to 150 mph this winter.

Now though, if our politicians get it right, we have a chance to catch up with the French, Germans, Italians, Spanish, Japanese - and Americans. On its way through Parliament is the Bill setting up the Strategic Railway Authority which will be tasked to develop the network, a big reward at last for RDS after 20 years of campaigning.

From the sidelines, we can only wish the Bill, God speed! But we must also hope the SRA will be given sufficient financial resources. The Shadow SRA's chairman Sir Alastair Morton has already said it could offer extra funds to Railtrack for visionary projects and maybe even force the company to act. The Bill will allow fines imposed by the Regulator to be diverted into rail investment - instead of going into the Treasury's bottomless pit.

Sir Alastair has already warned Railtrack that its £1 billion a year investment programme is "not going to do the business". He has told Railtrack to invest more and to cut its costs.

We in RDS want the SRA to think big and give us 160mph trains on our main lines, but we also want it to remember to think medium and small too. Privatisation has so far failed to deliver a good service on the West Coast main line and there are now fears that the current upgrade plan will not even accommodate a moderate growth in traffic. Likewise with the medium-sized East-West rail link project which is still awaiting approval. The new private companies have also failed to convince passengers they are committed to rural rail services. Years too late already, the SRA must give us the East-West rail link - perhaps in co-operation with Regional Development Agencies - and must also squash for ever attempts at bustitution. The Association of Community Rail Partnerships is calling for the SRA to set up a rural unit to work in conjunction with the Countryside Agency and its equivalents in Wales and Scotland. As its director Dr Paul Salveson says: "If we want to attract people out of their cars, we need the sort of comfort, quality and speed of journey which only rail can provide."

Yet the regions are still waiting for their north of London Eurostar services, long ago promised by the Channel Tunnel Act. Their future is dependent on yet another Government feasibility study. Yet the fledgling Rural Development Agencies are already calling for improved transport links to mainland Europe.

RDS would also like to see the SRA Bill take real action to protect disused railway land and particularly routes for future transport use. We also want to see new routes developed like the Central Railway plan and London's CrossRail.

However the current Railways Bill would prevent the SRA from promoting private Bills or seeking Tranport and Works Act orders. RDS believes it should have those powers.

The Bill does give the SRA power to invest in the freight network in the public interest even if it is not commercially viable. Thus far, Railtrack has failed to outline a strategy for transferring freight from road to rail and by being reluctant to enhance the loading gauge looks like losing much of rail's existing deep-sea traffic which is increasingly using larger containers.

But as a further boost for rail, the Commission for Integrated Transport is starting work in the autumn on the problems of "physical integration" and will have as part of its remit lorry weights and the development of rail freight.

Note: contact details (postal and email addresses, along with telephone numbers) in old editions of Railwatch out of date. Click CONTACT US for latest contact details.

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