Richard Wilson Looks at our Railways and Says . . .

by Jeremy on 21-Mar-2011

In yesterday’s Sunday Times, Giles Hattersley gave a preview of the Channel 4 programme Dispatches which is being broadcast today (Monday 21 March) at eight o’clock.  In his article, Hattersley refers to overblown fares, commuters crushed like cattle, constant delays and poor levels of comfort.  The problems highlighted in the programme are, he says, ” as damning as they are expected” despite Britain’s having the highest fares in Europe.

Dispatches is presented this time by much loved actor Richard Wilson who encounters the depressing realities of travelling on Britain’s railway system.  Many of his experiences will be all too familiar to rail commuters and other regular rail users, but Wilson was particularly shocked by the difference between north and south.  He is seen in a carriage with no heat or light “plunged into inky darkness every time the train enters a tunnel”.  He comments, “They’re terrible and they’ve no new stock due”.

Help could come soon for the north, though, as the new National Rail chief executive, David Higgins, is keen to give top priority to the Northern Hub plan, Network Rail’s vision to revolutionise trans-Pennine rail with high-speed, non-stop services connecting the big cities across the North.  For an estimated cost of £0.5billion this plan would provide 700 extra services a day and quicker more frequent services for Newcastle, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield.  It would allow faster line speeds, reducing journey times.  New track would give greater timetable flexibility, allowing fast trains to overtake and run at speed while still providing space on the network for vital local stopping services and freight.  Combined with another comparatively inexpensive Network Rail plan to upgrade the West Coast Main Line, this huge increase in connectivity would help generate real economic growth in and around those cities.  Together, they could aspire to become genuinely competitive with London. 

There is a possible fly in the ointment, though.  In the summer of 2010 Phillip Hammond, the Transport Secretary, publicly stated that there would only ever be one economic hub in Britain and that was London.  Around the same time he tasked Sir Roy McNulty with identifying ways to get better value for money from rail, and McNulty’s report is being published next month.  McNulty was asked to focus on eight important broad themes, one of which was “innovation, standards and safety”. 

Coincidentally, perhaps, the word “innovation” has been used by Hammond with reference to HS2 and his obsession with that project is very well known.  Since assuming his current role he has been doing everything in his power to ensure that HS2, a vastly expensive but inferior project, gets the go-ahead. 

HS2 phase 1 links just Birmingham and London at an estimated gigantic cost of about £17billion, which is a great deal more that the amount Hammond has set aside for improving the rest of Britain’s rail system.  His entire focus looks likely to remain on this showpiece instead of on providing Britain with the modernised rail system it deserves.  If Hammond has his way we will all be stuck with the creaking system so eloquently exposed by Richard Wilson.

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