As a respite from prisons and the MoJ - today, railways and the DT.
My Daily Mail journalist brother Ben and I don't always see eye to eye politically, but in this recent article from the Rail Magazine, he reaches precisely the conclusion I have about prisons - that the 'public v private' slanging match is misconceived, since it is so evident that railways (like prisons) can be run equally well, and equally badly, by either sector.
One might think that the debate would be about just where and in what circumstances it makes best sense to use the two sectors, and how best to use them, and how best to get them working together. Dream on! All we ever hear - from Left, from Right, from politicians, from journalists, is 'Two legs good, four legs bad'. Or, of course, the reverse. So often in politics, it seems that people prefer to chant than to think.
The system isn’t perfect, but rail is enjoying a renaissance
Ben Le Vay
A friend has suggested travelling from Oxford to Vladivostok by train. Naturally, I agreed straightaway, but added: “Do you know the one bit across all those nations, railway systems and two continents that you can’t do by a modern, electrified railway?” Receiving the answer ‘no’, I said: “Oxford to Didcot!”
Despite the billions of pounds we have spent on the Great Western electrification - part of the very welcome railway renaissance in this country - there is no plan to finish this job. So, can this local problem begin to tell us what is shamefully shambolic about our history of national railway decision-making?
In this particular case, diesel trains will be required to do the last few miles, which flies in the face of a Government minister recently vowing to get rid of polluting diesels altogether (RAIL 847).
The problem has been partly solved by hybrid trains, which start off as powerful electric expresses from Paddington, but then somewhere en route such as Reading a diesel engine under the floor starts rumbling like a Ford Transit. Yes, these trains are nice and new, but they are neither as spacious nor as comfortable (nor even as fast under diesel power) as the original 42-year-old High Speed Trains they are replacing.
Just think about the environmental logic. You make the new electric trains as light and quiet and clean as possible… then add six-tonne diesel engines plus fuel tanks under the floor for the bits where you can’t be bothered to finish the job. I realise they will be brilliant for running into areas never likely to be electrified, such as the Cotswolds beyond Oxford, but the main line trains should not be lugging all this kit back and forth.
I also realise that electrifying the last few miles to Oxford might be better done with a total upgrade of the junction and route (I hope this explains the pause in construction), but surely this should have been anticipated. As should a lot of things, frankly. Network Rail seemed surprised that its super-duper engineering train (for installing electrification masts more quickly) cut through the signalling cables that NR itself had buried in the trackside ballast only a few years ago to defeat the cable thieves (with the result the holes are now having to be dug by hand, while the multimillion-pound electrification train idles alongside).
I welcome the new longer electric suburban trains from places such as Maidenhead, but Network Rail gives the impression of being slightly surprised that longer trains mean longer platforms (in as much as they weren’t ready on time), and that more people need more car park spaces (ditto). It is now scratching around for what it calls ‘stabling’ - overnight sidings with room for all the new longer trains, which don’t fit in. “The clue is in the word ‘longer’,” said my Oxford chum drily.
To be fair to the railway, if the politicians called a halt to the overspending and delayed electrification, with the result that many branch lines in places such as the Thames Valley and around Cardiff do not get electrified after all, suddenly you have to keep the diesel fleet in their sidings, and thus have nowhere to keep all the shiny new electric trains. It’s a messy and wasteful compromise.
The London end of the Greta Western electrificarion scheme has gone ahead pretty well and is a part of the new Crossrail service that starts next year. designed to whisk people from Maidenhead to Shenfield (why, one might ask), getting far more people across central London without to change to the overburdened Tube (that's really why). Taking full sized trains, this new route could have offered Norwich-Ipswich-Colchester expresses straight through London to Bath-Bristol or Cardiff, but sadly that seems unlikely. It is to get commuters into London more smoothly.
And this led me to a staggering realisation about all our current grand railway schemes. They have all been done before, far cheaper in real terms, and then scandalously scrapped.
Crossrail: A brilliant idea of letting trains running into Paddington from the west continue under London to the City (including Farrngdon) in one seamless move.
Done before: In 1866, the ‘Widened Lines’ allowed trains coming into Paddington, and St Pancras and King’s Cross, to continue to Moorgate and (erm) Farringdon. Services closed gradually after the Second World War, but Thameslink uses part of it.
East West Railway:A brilliant scheme to link Oxford and Cambridge by a new direct route via Milton Keynes and Bedford, and also offering useful connections between many main lines.
Done before: Look out west just north of Oxford station, and you will see a rusting swing bridge over a canal and howl in frustration. For this shows it was all done long before, in 1851, with this bridge to reach its own station (Oxford Rewley Road).
Or look above you as you speed up the West Coast Main Line at Bletchley, and you will see a splendid concrete flyover completed in 1960 by British Railways, to let the Oxford-Cambridge ‘Varsity Line’’ run more smoothly and to have better freight connections, together with brand new electric signalling - only for it all to be closed and odd bits of the line scrapped and built over.
Northern Powerhouse: A new, speedier electrified trans-Pennine route is needed to better connect Manchester with Yorkshire. The Government promised this, calling it HS3, then back-pedalled to merely electrifying the existing (rather constricted) routes. Then it back-pedalled harder, possibly abandoning even that idea.
Done before: A new electrified route was opened in 1953 by the then newly nationalised British Railways to link Manchester and Sheffield via smart new concrete tunnels at Woodhead. The through route was closed in 1970 and the empty tunnels are now used for electric cables.
HS2: This is a promised whole new line between London, the Midlands and the North, costing somewhere probably double the estimated £28 billion. They have somehow managed to spend a billion pounds already without building an inch of track!
Although it will end at Euston within a few hundred yards of the HS1 route to the Continent, astonishingly there will be no connection, so European-size (larger) night freight and day passenger trains will be unable to continue up HS2.
Meanwhile, although it will pass within a few miles of Heathrow, it won’t go there either. It will stop instead at a place called Old Oak Common in west London. Ever needed to go there? Nope, me neither, but it will link to Crossrail - the new HS2 station there will obliterate some of the sidings that Crossrail needs.
Done before: The Great Central Railway was the last great main line built within England. Edwardian visionary Sir Edward Watkin laid it out for high-speed running and to the European loading gauge (the space under bridges and tunnels), so that larger European trains could fit through. He also planned to build a Channel Tunnel and connect it up properly.
The line wasn’t finished until the beginning of the 20th century, which is why its London terminus (Marylebone) is the only one with art nouveau flourishes in its decor.requirements, and so on - are made by civil servants and ministers, not private companies.
The truth is more complex than press, politicians, public or pundits want it to be. Both nationalised and privatised railways can be brilliant and well-funded… or bungling, costly failures.
Today’s picture is mixed, but basically improving things. Many sensible bottleneck-busting schemes such as flyovers and connecting curves are going ahead around the country without much fanfare, and in recent years more people have travelled more safely at higher average speeds than ever before. In other words, a success - a nationalised company putting right earlier nationalised blunders, but getting private investors to pay for much of it (in the form of new trains, and so on).
But just as out-and-out capitalist privatisation (in the form of Railtrack) was a disaster, so complete renationalisation (including train operators and owners) as a monolithic state corporation would be, too.
If you lived through half a century of BR’s nationalised gigantic bungling, failure, closures, retreat, shabbiness, frequent strikes and terrible accidents, and now realise that so much that was undone is having to be expensively redone, why would you be in any rush to board that particular train once again?
Some things are still going wrong - I would like to see the brilliant open access competition of the East Coast route adopted elsewhere (without the far-fetched franchise bids that cause that profitable route to keep collapsing), and please finish electrification to Oxford - but much, much more is going right.
Investment is at a level only our Victorian forebears matched. The jobs being done, stations such as St Pancras and King’s Cross being wonderfully revamped, and the trains being built today (in three new factories) would not have made the wildest wishlist of the most devout 1980s rail fan.
So, as our American chums put it: if it ain’t bust, don’t fix it. Meanwhile, I’m off to Vladivostok… via Didcot. R
■ Benedict le Vay is a Fleet Street journalist, and author of Britain From the Rails: A Window Gazer’s Guide and When Train Meets Volcano.
I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
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