Winter 2006

The Big Investment That Can: With Less Risk to Everyone

Christopher Haskins

A few years ago, three tragic accidents occurred on the railways, in the London area, over a short period of time. The first, at Paddington, was caused by the driver passing over red lights into the path of another train. The second and third, at Hatfield and Potters Bar, were due to bad maintenance. Inevitably, spurred on by the media, the public became very concerned even though, despite these events, the railways had an excellent safety record compared with the roads.

The Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, after Paddington, had a spontaneous and ill considered kneejerk reaction in declaring that cost would not be a restraint in making our railways fully safe. After Hatfield, the Health and Safety Executive insisted on a massive and disproportionate review of track safety which threw the system into disarray. Timetables were slowed down but even then punctuality collapsed. State subsidies rose as did rail fares and the Treasury understandably applied severe restrictions on further investment to expand and modernise the system. Meanwhile, thanks to a strong economy, passenger numbers continued to rise, but so did the number of road users, creating at times national gridlock. National productivity suffered as did the environment, as evidenced by a sudden surge of CO2 emissions.

The main lesson from this chain of events is that a Victorian rail network, which because of the courage and foresight of our predecessors had remained effective throughout the nineteenth century, was no longer adequate for the needs of the 21st century. Over half a century of steady economic growth has exposed the shortcomings of the national transport network. Most public investment has gone into the motorways, but this has not been sufficient to meet the needs of industry and private motorists. Road and air transport have become the most dangerous source of greenhouse gases. The internal air network has flourished as people have preferred to fly to London from Scotland and the North of England, rather than take the train. Now the airports are facing congestion, and putting forward controversial plans for expansion.

Throughout all this the Victorian railway system has been starved of investment, being subjected to short-term patching up” rather than long term strategic planning. Remarkably, in recent years passenger numbers have been rising dramatically, despite the high fare costs, and the extra trains needed to meet the demand have restricted the potential for rail freight. Now the scope to extend passenger services is becoming severely restricted. The only way to increase capacity in the London area is to increase the length of trains. Incidentally, it is surprising, in light of these trends, how safe rather than dangerous the railways have become.

The Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, has expressed interest in the high speed rail systems being developed in Europe, Japan and China, which would necessitate a massive investment in dedicated new rail lines. The TGV network is the most spectacular example. Needless to say, the proposal was treated with scorn by the smallminded bean counters who influence modern economic and social thinking. But I have no doubt how our more imaginative and entrepreneurial Victorian predecessors would respond to today’s situation. They would invest in a brand new high speed network, alongside the existing one, to link London with Bristol, South Wales, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Leeds and possibly Nottingham and Sheffield.

The bean counters will point to the astronomic cost of such a project and the conservationists will resist fiercely. But there is both an economic and environmental case for such a venture, taking a fifty year perspective

– A substantial increase in rail capacity will take pressure off the roads, and reduce the scale of the motorway expansion.

– A new system will create spare capacity in the existing system to enable freight to transfer from road to rail.

– The modern technology applied to the new system will enable far more trains to operate on the network. It would also create a much higher degree of reliability and punctuality. If market demand existed, one could envisage trains leaving for the main cities every few minutes.

– A high speed rail system would make the internal air network in Britain largely redundant, thereby reducing the scale of airport expansion.

– Housing shortages in the South East would be mitigated as people used the new system to commute to London from areas like South Yorkshire, where there is plenty of capacity. (Doncaster would be less than an hour away).

Conceivably there would be an incentive to tackle the peculiarly British problem of over centralisation in the South East, by making the rest of Britain much more accessible. The great regional cities might regain their Victorian pomp and confidence.

– The nation’s productivity would benefit as a result.

The environmental benefits of promoting rail use as opposed to road and air are dramatically self evident. This would be a significant contribution to mitigating the risks involved in climate change.

Finally the new system would be safer than the existing one, far safer than the roads and far more convenient than the airports.

But, I fear, we no longer subscribe to the wonderful risk taking spirit of the Victorians, and will continue to patch and mend, to the economic, social and environmental detriment of future generations.

Christopher Haskins is Chairman of Airtrain