Lord Bill Bradshaw writes…A partnership railway can help secure enormous benefits for Britain

It’s been a busy time for rail announcements, following on from the publication last week of the Government’s rail strategy, Connecting people: a strategic vision for rail, which itself was just a few weeks after the launch of a long-term plan, called In Partnership for Britain’s Prosperity, to change and improve Britain’s railway.

Working together, the partnership railway of the public and private sectors has committed to securing almost £85bn of additional economic benefits to the country. The plan contains four commitments which will see rail companies strengthen their economic contribution to the country, improve customers’ satisfaction, boost the communities it serves and create more and better jobs in rail.

I welcome this plan, because there is an urgent need to re‐state and define the railway, and the role it can play in meeting Britain’s transport needs. A recent report of the National Infrastructure Commission downplayed the potential of the railway and there is a need for the industry to fight back. We are not the industry of ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ and the vintage steam engines which cast an image of a bygone age and dignified decline, nor are we in the image of the RMT who, while advancing bogus claims about safety, obstruct change to a thriving future with more, and better‐rewarded staff, who constantly say when asked that they enjoy working in the industry.

We are not locked in the past. In three years’ time, there will be over 5,700 new carriages running on the railway and 6,400 extra services a week – more seats and a more comfortable, reliable daily commute for hundreds of thousands of people. Stations are being modernised with longer platforms to accommodate longer trains. In two years, almost 180 stations will be improved – creating more attractive gateways to towns and villages across Britain.

Signalling and track are being updated, so that the capacity of the network is improved almost always inside railway boundaries, which of course cannot be said for new motorways, which gouge their way through our precious countryside. For example, the proposed East–West Rail link from Oxford to Cambridge will do infinitely less environmental damage than the road now being mooted. Electrification will be completed in the congested areas at much less cost than on the Great Western, which was over‐specified and badly planned. This will not be repeated.

The future will be made better as new forms of traction using battery power and hydrogen come on line. Staff training is intense on much of the railway, to equip staff to give a better, more courteous, and more caring manner in dealing with passengers.

Freight trains are often capable of running at 75mph but are unable to do so very often because of congestion. Performance can be improved by providing longer passing loops, some better track layouts, improved signalling, ease of access to ports – a major source of traffic – and the creation of more freight terminals.

The railway is also safer than it ever has been, and requires less subsidy than most railways in the rest of Europe. Investment from the public and private sectors is underpinning this long-term plan to change and improve the railway, but money from fares is vitally important too.

Our railway is a crucial public service, so it is only fair that politicians make decisions on where money for improvements comes from. Alongside public funding, the private sector invested £925m in the railway last year, for example on new trains and IT. Government decides on the balance invested by taxation and how much by the passenger, and therefore the level of fares.

It does this directly where passengers have less choice about how they travel. Here, government increases prices in line with the Retail Prices Index. Indirectly, Government also has a role in setting the fares train operators control, because rail franchises are expected to make certain payments back to the Exchequer as stipulated by their contracts.

All these changes I have described can be brought about within ten years, with very little impact upon the public. By then the railway can be unrecognisable, with modern, new trains and staff who feel engaged in something worthwhile.

As a recent visit to Crossrail – built to last 200 years – showed me, the railway is technically alert and can provide a modern miracle. This is a crucial time for our country, and the railway will play a critical role in our success.

* Lord Bradshaw is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords, and a former General Manager of British Rail’s Western Region. He was Professor of Transport Management at University of Salford from 1986–92, a special adviser to the House of Commons Transport Select Committee from 1992-97, and is a fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford.

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12 Comments

  • Andrew Toye 6th Dec '17 - 2:34pm

    I am surprised that such a contentious article has not led to other comments so far!

    Firstly, the public/private partnership (PFI/PPP) model has been an expensive headache, with the private sector taking all the profits and the taxpayer taking all the risks. “The private sector has invested £925m …. It does this directly where passengers have less choice about how they travel.” Yes, exactly, any they have been given licence to raise fares (again) where people have little alternative but to pay up.

    Secondly, with recent disasters still fresh in recent memory, we should not dismiss concerns over safety as “bogus” or “obstructing progress”. We should take all safety concerns seriously until we are satisfied that they are unfounded. If people are so happy with the management at work, surely the RMT will have no members?

    Thirdly, the rosy picture painted in the article does not reflect the day-to-day reality of train passengers at present – crowded trains, delays, cancellations – I do hope it will improve in the future, but don’t hold your breath! We have a Tory government and we’re not in coalition with them anymore. Such unrealistic optimism is no longer necessary from us.

  • If HMG can afford a vanity line between Oxford and Cambridge – it can certainly afford to modernise the Liverpool – Manchester – Huddersfield/Halifax – Leeds – Hull line. Trains on the Carlisle-Newcastle line are also pretty crummy as are those on the wonderful Settle-Carlisle line (which used to be an alternative Scotland to London main line via the Midlands in its old glory days).

    All the new money seems to be going in a north-south direction with a special emphasis on the south east and London.

  • Richard Easter 6th Dec '17 - 2:50pm

    Ahh yes the “bogus” claims of the unions – ie. “it is fine to axe guards and station staff and have the driver solely responsible and liable for everyone”.

    I refer the writer back to the following article https://www.libdemvoice.org/southern-rail-52714.html and the comments by “Steve” the driver. I suspect has a better grasp of safety related issues (and the legal liability for staff when dealing with reckless or anti social behaviour) than the writer does. I suggest they debunk his points rather than simply shout the Tory line of “bogus” and expect us to believe it.

    Aside from this – most of the new trains are worse than the old ones (e.g. Cross Country voyagers – both for capacity and comfort). The fact that only one conglomerate of British private firms (Stagecoach + Virgin) bids for these franchises these days, and the rest are largely let out to arms of foreign state railways indicates market failure.

  • nvelope2003 6th Dec '17 - 3:06pm

    You have misunderstood Lord Bradshaw. He states that it is the Government, not the private sector, which decides on the balance invested by taxation and how much by the passenger where passengers have less choice about how they travel.

    The costs of operating the railways continues to rise, for example by the latest 28.5% wage increase granted to drivers on the Southern. Someone has to pay for these cost increases. Why should the taxpayers, many of whom rarely if ever travel by train, have to pay while the actual users of trains have subsidised travel and users of other modes have to pay the full costs. Large parts of Britain outside the London area do not have any practical means of access to the railway system yet the inhabitants have to pay for it often to a greater extent than those who live in the London area. It is simply unfair. To use a train to London I would have to pay a substantial taxi fare which is actually higher than the return fare of the privately operated coach service. The journey times are about the same.
    There seems to be an obsession with railway fare increase among certain people who do not seem to be at all bothered by the continual increases in the cost of essentials such as food.

  • nvelope2003 6th Dec '17 - 3:15pm

    David Raw: Nice to see you praising the privately operated Midland railway. It is Government control that has created many of the problems. The Minister actually tells the operator which train will stop where and how often even though the operator is more likely to know what makes sense. I worked in public transport for much of my life and the “experts” usually did not have a clue. If we had followed their advice the firm would have gone bankrupt and the public had no service at all, which is often the case now.

  • Richard Easter 6th Dec '17 - 3:42pm

    Perhaps the 28.5% pay rise for Southern Drivers wouldn’t have come about if the DFT via the Tories had left Southern well alone, rather than telling the drivers “you will dispatch trains and take on the guards’ responsiblities and if you screw them up, we will jail you”.

  • nvelope2003 6th Dec '17 - 9:15pm

    Richard Easter: You may well be right which is exactly the point I was making. However, I suspect the whole dispute was about pay because as soon as a huge wage increase was offered the union settled it. If the Southern had been a private company not reliant on subsidy from the taxpayers they would not have been able to grant such an increase or they would have gone bankrupt unless fares were forced up to a level which risked driving the customers away.

  • @ nvelop2003 “Nice to see you praising the privately operated Midland railway”.

    I don’t think I did, but I give you credit for a vivid imagination. I’ll admit to an admiration for their maroon livery and station architecture, but it took an ex GWR engineer to improve on their small locomotive policy.

  • nvelope2003 7th Dec '17 - 8:52am

    David Raw: Ah so you liked the GWR (Great War Round) – you cannot get away from it hehe ! Grandad would be pleased.

  • Richard Easter 7th Dec '17 - 3:48pm

    I suppose driver only operation and legal liablity for extra duties was forced on them and they couldn’t see much of a way out, so just took the money in the end – not to mention ASLEF being it with court cases and losing. The problem being that in the publics’ eyes any real concerns about safety have now been undermined by their action and ASLEF drivers thought of as money grabbers and sell outs amongst the other staff.

    Personally though I still see scrapping guards and station staff as right wing dogma which has absolutely zero benefit for passengers, existing staff or for that matter middle management who have to deal directly with the increase in incidents and issues caused by it. Pretty much everything Grayling has ever touched has been ruined, I personally trust the opinions of frontline rail staff and unions and for that matter many ex BR managers who have commented on the issues, than anything spouted by Grayling.

  • Richard Easter: Have they actually scrapped “guards” on trains ? The “on board supervisors” seem to do the same things except for closing the doors. Grayling should not be responsible for the railways but the same could be said for most of the present Government in respect of their duties.

    The operation of railways in Britain needs to be fundamentally reviewed as it is not working and has not been working since 1948.

  • Why do we need a minister for railways ? We do not have one for the rather more important and efficient distribution and retailing of food

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