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Allrik Birch is a freelance campaign consultant with interests in history, economics and transport policy.

It is time to allow private companies to build new rail infrastructure in the UK. Governments of all stripes have a poor record of investing in rail infrastructure.

The infamous Beeching cuts of the 1960s and 1970s closed a third of the rail network, but this was just part of a wider programme of rail closures by governments of both the Conservative and Labour parties. Between nationalisation in 1948 and Dr Beeching’s first report into railway closures in 1963 over 3,000 miles of railway were closed.

In comparison, the fully-private railway model that existed prior to WWI saw consistent and ambitious expansion for the better part of a century. Even under the reorganised ‘big four’ period after it, new suburban lines were being opened as late as 1939. By contrast you have to wait until the 2000s for the first new line to be built through government initiative, in the form of HS1.

The partial privatisation since the 1990s has helped in some areas, especially when it comes to investment in rail-stock and other passenger quality-of-life improvements. This has helped to drive the large increase in passenger numbers, which in turn has made the economic case for expansion much stronger. In addition, the increase in rail freight since privatisation has shown the relative success of the new model – with a 70 per cent increase in volume between 1995 and 2004 (compared to a 24 per cent increase in Germany and a six per cent fall in France over the same period).

However, the tight government control of the franchise model, and the continued government ownership of the track, signalling and other infrastructure, has meant that reopening track, or building entirely new lines, has rarely taken place, and innovation across the network has been limited. Further, the lack of infrastructure investment across much of the network is now creating a capacity barrier preventing significant further expansion of freight rail.

Sadly, when new infrastructure is proposed, it is often vastly expensive, poorly-thought-out, politically-driven schemes like HS2 – for which the business case was scant even at its original price – or schemes such as the Borders railway, where a good idea had funding successively cut back again and again to help pay for other government priorities. Whilst HS2 had seemed to have unlimited access to greater funding (until the current freeze), smaller improvements elsewhere that could collectively offer significant benefits are starved of funding.

The success of the Borders Railway shows that previously-closed lines do have potential, but it also shows that the overly-cautious and penny-pinching Civil Service approach will never deliver the sort of investment across the rail network that we need.

The Borders Railway was reopened with only single track with passing loops, putting a restriction on capacity, as well as using old-fashioned diesel trains, of which there was already a shortage on the ScotRail network. With a number of new bridges only being built with single track in mind, the opportunity for future upgrades to the service are severely limited. A cost-cutting exercise during construction in 2011 reduced the length of the passing loops, further reducing potential capacity on the line.

Since re-opening the line has been a huge success (despite the scepticism of civil servants), with around double the expected capacity, but one that is now seriously over-capacity at peak hours, with no easy way to expand it due to the lack of ambition from those involved.

Given the clear need for extra rail capacity across much of the country, reopening rail lines should be looked at as a priority. Understandably, the Department for Transport has been reluctant to take risks with taxpayer money on lines with an ‘unproven’ demand, especially with grand projets like HS2 taking up so much money and time.

The solution is, of course, to allow private companies to take the risk. The Government should be looking, as a matter of urgency, to put together a framework for private investors to re-open old lines and open new lines and run them in whatever model they choose. This would likely need to include leasing or sale of land from Network Rail, as well as compulsory purchase rights for other land and a smoother process for planning permission.

Potential lines that could be opened include the Woodhead line, to provide a much needed trans-Pennine link, and the Great Central Main Line, which with additional links could be a viable alternative to HS2 stage one. Others include smaller links like the Ivanhoe, the Wisbech-March, and the Portishead-Bristol lines amongst a host of others.

Some of these routes would also open up the possibility of building new towns or garden cities along the route, to alleviate the intense housing shortage. One such possibility would be at Ashendon in Buckinghamshire, on the Great Central Main Line.

There are many other places where a new or reopened rail line would provide the ability to build or revitalise towns that have lost their station or seen a steep reduction in services – a possibility missed by HS2, which forgoes any ‘stopping service’ arrangement despite the astronomical price. New or improved rail links can provide a large economic benefit and would help to deliver Boris Johnson’s plan to deliver growth to ‘left-behind towns.’

If we wait for civil servants in the Department for Transport and the Treasury to propose and sign off on projects, with the mass of consultations currently needed, then the pace of improvements in our rail infrastructure will continue to be slow-to-non-existent, and the chance of cost cutting that limit the benefits of the routes will be high.

By fully opening up avenues for new lines to be opened – or old lines re-opened – by private companies, the risk is off-loaded to those investors. Additionally, a much larger amount of money can be leveraged more quickly, as several companies could all be building new track in different regions all at once. Freed from the constraints of Department for Transport rules, these companies could invest in new technology and systems, experiment with different models for running their networks, or even use old improvements such as Brunel’s wide-gauge to improve the capacity, speed, and comfort of trains on their lines.

The era of government-run rail infrastructure has been, for the most part, one of decline and a clear lack of ambition. Lines were closed, upgrades such as electrification repeatedly delayed, and the wider infrastructure was allowed to rot. It is well past time for the Government to once again allow private investors to build infrastructure directly, without civil servants interfering with every step of the process.

30 comments for: Allrik Birch: We need private firms to re-build our rail network

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