Tony Lodge is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies and author of Rail’s Second Chance – putting competition back on track.
The Conservative manifesto delivered clear pledges for the railways: “We will focus on creating extra capacity on the railways, which will ease overcrowding, bring new lines and stations, and improve existing routes – including for freight. We will increase services on our main lines and commuter routes.”
But how to do it? How will Network Rail be better encouraged to find extra capacity (spare track space exists, by the way), and what will deliver new routes and better trains?
Questions and answers to these points are poignant and long overdue, as passenger numbers break new records. But in 25 years since the Conservatives privatised the railways, promising more choice and competition, the Party has still to deliver on many of these key ambitions. The grip of Whitehall civil servants who like their train set remains a constant problem, but the Party now has a chance to deliver a solution based on evidence, experience – and a successful test case.
Delivering extra capacity to deliver more trains and routes
Network Rail has spent vast amounts of taxpayers’ money to improve the railways and, in theory, to create additional track capacity. However, it appears not fully to understand the current network capacity, or what levels of spare capacity exist and can be created following enhancements. This means that it does not maximise and sell all the significant new track space which could generate and deliver more trains and routes. The organisation remains too reactive. It must become proactive – and have clear ambitions and targets for creating new capacity from existing routes and other lines which have enjoyed infrastructure improvements.
In any proposed restructuring of Network Rail, clear new priorities and targets are needed, with better management of the timetable. The body should be mandated to understand, create, maximise and sell new capacity.
Increasing and improving services on main lines
New intercity ‘open access’ train services should be encouraged and approved to run in competition with the franchise holder on all main lines. Nearly 20 per cent of the intercity services on the East Coast Main Line are now ‘open access’, and have delivered new routes, new trains and faster connections since their introduction over the past 17 years. They also register the highest passenger satisfaction ratings in Britain, and force significant improvements from the franchised services. Conservative railway privatisation permitted these popular, competitive, open access services which deliver very competitive fares – but they have only been delivered on this one main line. Why?
A new Conservative Government should encourage and approve open access applications on the West Coast Main Line, the Great Western Main Line and across the south. These services would deliver more trains, more routes and, crucially, provide fare competition and passenger choice. Tonight at London King’s Cross, you can choose between three intercity operators to reach Yorkshire and the North East. But at Paddington, Waterloo and Euston you can only travel with one long distance train firm to reach Somerset, Hampshire and Lancashire. This must change.
With these policies Conservatives would deliver on their manifesto pledges and also go a long way to fulfilling their initial ambitions a quarter of a century ago.