Changes to rail structure all about cutting costs

Trains at Liverpool Street

New trains at Liverpool Street station - these have been a real benefit of the privatised railway, but what does the future hold for rail services? - Credit: Paul Geater

Over the last week several people have asked me what I make of the new structure proposed by the government for Britain's rail industry.

Having read the White Paper - all 116 pages of it - I think I can see what the government is trying to do, and I really don't have any great concerns about the structure that is being proposed.

But while there is a great deal of flowery language about "putting the passenger first" I cannot help feeling that the overwhelming driver for all these changes is to reduce the cost of the railways to the taxpayer.

Because the simple fact is that the railways as they are currently constituted, in the wake of the pandemic, are financially unsustainable - and are likely to remain in that position for many years.

Take away all the words about improving things for passengers - which actually have very little detail behind them - and you realise this is actually a blueprint for how the railways should be run by those who are actually paying the bill  . . . the government.

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There are some very interesting statistics here. In 2019, 47% of all passenger journeys on trains were made by commuters. During the first lockdown, when passenger numbers fell to 5% of normal, the number of commuters fell dramatically - and they are likely to remain seriously depressed for many years.

Leisure, business and other journeys might get back to their pre-pandemic levels quite quickly, but if there's a 30% drop in the number of commuters that will have a devastating effect on the finances of the railways.

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So the changes, and the creation of Great British Railways, really have far more to do with reducing the level of support the government has to pay to the railways than improving life for passengers, I suspect.

I don't really expect to see much more major new investment in the rail network after the construction of HS2. Maintenance and some strategic improvements like unblocking Ely or upgrading Haughley junction may go ahead.

But I really don't see major enhancements like the third track at Witham in Essex or a new double-track Trowse bridge near Norwich station coming any time soon - and that means that hourly trains from Norwich in 90 and Ipswich in 60 to London will remain a pipedream for the next few decades.

And has the Oxford to Cambridge rail link really passed the point of no return? I'm not convinced. We've waited 36 years since the idea was first raised in 1985. I wouldn't be surprised if we had to wait another decade or two to get things rolling again.

But despite the gloom of that, I don't really see the return of the Beeching Axe - and the fact that private rail companies will still have a role in providing train services does mean there should be an incentive to have decent trains for passengers to ride on.

I don't think there will be the kind of collapse we saw in rail passenger numbers between the mid-50s and early-80s which had some "experts" talking about ripping up rail lines to replace them with motorways.

Modern trains make even loss-making services attractive for passengers. If you want to travel from Ipswich to Lowestoft then a modern train is much more comfortable than struggling along the A12.

Within the next few years I think it is quite possible that the number of passengers using trains for leisure trips (26% in 2019) and business users (10%) will overtake commuters as a long-term trend across the country, including in East Anglia.

That does herald a new era for the railways, and an era in which investment will have to reflect a new reality. 

The new structure announced last week could provide the skeleton on which to build the new model for the railways in that.

But one thing that did make me smile wryly in this new vision for rail was talk of a 30-year strategy for the railways.

30-year strategy? That's at least six general elections away and God knows how many Transport Secretaries (never the longest-serving cabinet portfolio).

And the fact is that politicians are just like children: they cannot resist the opportunity to play with trains!

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