ON-LINE DEBATE

10 March 1998

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood (Lib.Dem.)


The environmental case for rail taking an increased share of passenger and freight movements is widely accepted. People understand and desire the benefits of reduced congestion, reduced air pollution and reduced wear and tear on our road system. At the same time, the safety case for rail is very high indeed. In theory, if all passenger journeys were transferred from road to rail, deaths would be reduced from 3,500 to 100 per annum. The greater use of the railways can also play its part in developing and redeveloping town and city centres, which chimes well with the Government's planning approach laid out in their recent Green Paper.

All in all, there is a strong public interest in maintaining and expanding rail services. But the current structure inhibits those objectives. For example, if we examine the infrastructure the responsibility for maintaining, improving and presumably extending the track rests with Railtrack; but residual railway lands which might be needed for that are still in the ownership of the British Railways Property Board. Again, with passenger services divided among 25 different franchises it is possible for overall performance apparently to improve while important pockets of sub-standard service remain.

A recent report from the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) highlights some of those improvements, including better standards of performance in the National Rail Enquiry Service, ATOC's development of a code of practice for the safety aspects of stations, car parks and trains, increased levels of satisfaction and a required investment in 2,052 railway coaches, of which half are to be in service by the year 2000. All of those are welcome. However, it is noticeable that most of the service and infrastructure projects are outside the south east, and in particular outside the Surrey, Sussex and Kent areas, where levels of satisfaction among commuters are extremely low. Equally, it might be hard to persuade commuters on the "misery" lines from the north into the City that their services are really improving. Delays, cancellation and overcrowding are a normal part of life, together with elderly rolling stock which is dirty within and without.

The financing of rail services and improvements in the infrastructure currently depend on high levels of public subsidy. It is the high track rents made possible by these subsidies which enable Railtrack to commit itself to historically high levels of overall investment; for example, the modernisation of the west coast main line signaling system. But what will happen to investment as subsidies begin to be phased out? Stop-go investment was a curse under the nationalised system. Does the new privatised system remove that curse? Certainly, the failure of London and Continental Railways to fulfill its contract in respect of the Channel Tunnel rail link is not reassuring. It is, in our view, essential that the Government ensure the full completion of that project. Not only would the completed CTRL make a contribution to environmental objectives, but the commercial benefit of the new line is not to be realised unless it is carried through Stratford and on to King's Cross-St. Pancras.

There are other areas in which an expanded or restored network would enable the operating companies to fulfill public needs and expectations. For example, Heathrow Airport is the largest single generator of traffic in the United Kingdom and one of the largest single generators of traffic in the whole of Europe. Most of that traffic comes in by road. Yet with a relatively minimal reinstatement of existing tracks and chords, together with some new build, it would be possible to link most of south and south-west London, and the outer southern suburbs, to Heathrow by rail with enormous benefits to congestion on the M25. But obviously if existing but unused rail land were to be lost, that option would also be lost.

So far I have spoken largely of passenger services, but there is also great public interest and commercial benefit in expanding the role of the railways in freight movements. Documentation I have received from other freight organisations indicates their interest in investment in modernising the loading gauge so that the network can accept trains carrying 9 foot 6 inch containers and improving the possibility of carrying piggy-back road trailers by rail. One major company concludes that where the network capacity is concerned: "There is at present no clear strategic planning approach which can look beyond relatively short-term commercial horizons".

So if there are problems and if the public interest, possibly supported by public funds, needs to be injected into the equation, how might one achieve those objectives?

One thing that needs to be done is to create an even playing field between the railways and their chief competitors—private motor cars. Interestingly, some of the methods by which this could be done would also generate funds for investment in public transport, including the railways. We believe that the motor licence fee should be reduced, possibly in a way that rewards owners of more economical cars, while motorists should be asked to pay the full costs of using their cars via increased taxation of petrol. In places where congestion is particularly damaging, road pricing might be introduced. Local highways authorities could be enabled to monitor and recuperate the fines for illegal parking.

All three of those measures would generate funds which could be hypothecated for use to support public transport. They would have the additional benefit of doing so at the level of both national and local government. I think it is generally agreed that co-operation between the public and the private sector is necessary to achieve the best results. No doubt others will have good ideas for creating what we believe to be the desirable outcome of partnership between the public and the private sector.

Liberal Democrats do not want to return to the past. We recognise that our preferred option for privatisation which would have involved retaining Railtrack in public ownership is no longer a possibility. But we still insist that railways have a key and expanding role to play in an integrated transport system that is safe, user friendly, accessible and environmentally sustainable and which reflects the public as well as the private interest.

We acknowledge that the Government have begun the process of improved regulation and planning, but we would prefer the creation of a single rail authority which would replace both. We think that a partnership between the private and the public sector is necessary to ensure investment that satisfies the public interest as well as making economic sense.

We suggest that only a transparent fiscal regime can both ensure that the real costs of all modes of transport are appreciated by users and that the higher costs levied on the use of motor vehicles are seen to be devoted to the improvement and upgrading of public transport.

It is up to the Government to convince us in the next days, months and years that they have the determination to take the decisions that can make our railways work for us.

Reply to Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

View Contributors

Home