Ministers promise a railway revolution
The Observer: July 8, 2007
Juliette Jowit, transport editor
Longer, faster hi-tech trains are planned to end delays and overcrowding.
A 30-year plan to transform rail travel with longer trains that can run closer together using biofuels and even hydrogen power will be set out by the government this month.
Ministers are to give more details of a new fleet of inter-city trains, raising the prospect of Britain getting trains similar to the high-speed Velaro recently unveiled in Spain. They will also announce for the first time a 'new generation' train to replace much of Britain's remaining diesel and electric stock. Research will also be unveiled into trams that can run on commuter rail routes and on roads through city centres.
To increase capacity on crowded routes, the white paper is likely to say the latest hi-tech European signalling system will be fitted within a decade so that trains can run closer together. Thousands more carriages are to be ordered so that trains can be made longer.
Double-decker trains are thought to be considered too expensive because of the need to increase the height of tunnels and bridges.
Other improvements could give passengers general wi-fi access to the internet and provide on-board information about other transport links, while CCTV cameras which can detect suspect packages and 'abnormal behaviour' are being considered, as are anti-viral surfaces to reduce the risk of epidemics such as bird flu spreading. Scanners to detect weapons and explosives could also be installed at major stations.
On the tracks, more modern monitoring and repair equipment should allow faults to be detected more quickly and repaired without closing neighbouring lines, creating what officials call a '24/7 railway' - and raising hopes of ending widespread shutdowns and the misery of replacement bus services at weekends.
The improvements will come at a price: officials warn that seats could have to be removed from busy trains so they can carry more standing passengers, and fares could rise further on popular routes to encourage travel outside the rush hour. The white paper is also expected to suggest that savings could be made by further cutting back maintenance on the least used rural lines. Network Rail has asked for nearly £21bn for day-to-day running costs and another £7bn-£8bn for enhancements from 2009 to 2014.
However, the white paper is not expected to give a definite go-ahead to three of Britain's biggest rail projects: a new Crossrail route across London, which is the subject of a separate government bill, and new passenger and freight lines from London to Scotland.
The wide-ranging plans will be welcomed by passengers and campaigners who have been complaining about over-crowding and continuing delays caused by infrastructure failures. However, they are likely to be met with caution after previous promises since Labour came to power 10 years ago and previous strategies from Network Rail's predecessor, Railtrack and the government's now disbanded Strategic Rail Authority.
There is also likely to be concern about whether the government will put in enough subsidy to pay for the promises and anger if fares continue to rise, particularly before the improvements are introduced.
'People have heard a lot of this before,' said Stephen Joseph, director of the lobby group Transport 2000. 'Because this is coming from government, and the Treasury has had to sign it off, there's a level of commitment that probably wasn't there in the past, but there's still a large level of uncertainty. Passengers will believe this when they see the new trains running down the tracks.'
There will also be keen interest in how far ministers will commit to a new north-south high-speed line. In a draft of the technical strategy, which forms part of the white paper, it is tabled as a possibility between 2020 and 2030. However, rail leaders are hopeful the advice of the government's transport adviser, Rod Eddington, to rule out the new line will not be taken. 'All the hints have been that it's going to be left open,' said Paul Martin, director-general of the Railway Forum industry group. 'I'd be surprised if they slammed the door altogether.'
A DfT spokesman said: 'The technical strategy has been produced in close collaboration with the rail industry and brings together many projects already in development. It will inform and guide decisions taken as part of the work on the longer-term strategy, but is separate to it. It will be published in due course.'