Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by Ray Bentley (PRF 21)


A Vision for our Railways


  The enquiry has 5 bullet points in its Press Notice 03/2001-02. This memorandum does not address number 5 and only tangentially 1 & 2. It is key to number 4 in that the leadership of the industry by the SRA and how it manages the franchising process requires a clear Vision of where the industry is going. The governments 50 per cent passenger growth target was not a vision and indeed on some projections of recent rates of organic growth was below trend growth. This paper argues for the need for that vision to be prepared during the time temporary extensions are in force. This applies equally to the third bullet point in that vision is needed for an infrastructure enhancement framework. The paper argues that the Strategic Agenda lacks that vision and the strategy that emerges from it cannot be the necessary vision. This paper does not produce the complete vision but suggests some issues that it should cover and points out that other countries with successful railways have developed against such visions.


  The 20-year franchise replacement process was to bring forth the private investment needed for our railways. The TOCs, with few assets, are not attractive investments in themselves but with 20 years of income flow from government (currently missing) and 20 years from farebox flow, could sign contracts for new rolling stock and agree to use and pay access charges on enhanced infrastructure. That is now largely on hold. We are seeking early benefits for passengers via two-year franchise extensions, given track capacity few of these are likely to be extra services. I do not comment on the relative merits of the two approaches to franchise replacement.

  There could be at least two reasons for the recent change.

  By the next election the government will be held responsible for the state of the railways, no longer able to blame privatisation. They introduced the SRA as a solution, if it has not delivered our blame culture will point at the government.

  Perhaps the second reason is to pause to consider the industry structure. Re-nationalisation in whole or part is not going to happen, but Railtrack as a PLC has not worked. Railtrack maximised profit and dividend by cutting cost by compromising safety and reliability. There is need for stronger economic regulation and for safety regulation to be more pro-active on regular inspection (independent of Railtrack) not just re-active after accidents.

  However, the point of this paper is not to discuss any possible tweaks to the structure but to say that we need a Vision of our future railway before thinking of structure or resuming the re-franchising process.


  The West Coast Main Line upgrade is an example of a project without a coherent vision. It is trying to mix high-speed long distance, slower inter-urban, local commuter and freight (plus maintenance needs) but finding that being driven by a high-speed vision inappropriate to mixed intensive track use has compromised the other functions. There may be a solution in there but it will not be robust and will see continued conflict between the various uses.

  The Virgin Trains plan for a new high speed line for ECML would overcome some of these problems but perhaps the two year GNER extension is a chance to think through the wider visionary issues.


  I use the examples of France and Switzerland. They are different visions but they both seem to promote national pride in, support for and relatively high use of their railways.


  The non-TGV railway is not a particularly good model. It could be argued that they have suffered to fund TGV, any transfer of the vision should bear this in mind. However the developing TGV system is world class and based on vision. It is right for a large country with space and topography to allow relatively straight and flat alignments. The 0831 from Marseilles to Paris three hours non-stop (466 miles) on a Sunday (with another service an hour behind) warrants two 8-car double deck units. This vision has attracted high use. The track is TGV only and available every night for seven hours maintenance, no overnight freight or daytime slow locals.

  The French choose to link their four largest conurbations (Paris, Lille, Lyon and Marseilles) by TGV. The TGV Paris bypass is allowing direct services between these places without cross Paris interchange. Cross boundary services are also developing. The system is evolving. TGV through trains use the high speed dedicated lines and then existing infrastructure for short distances into cities or (temporarily) for longer distances to many locations, until the high-speed dedicated lines are extended. If this vision transferred to UK it would need to ensure that secondary Cities had direct services and intermodality was enhanced. Some criticism arises of the priority given to TGV on shared track, reinforcing the need to complete the vision.

  The system is working to a vision of a dedicated high-speed core network. With some of the tweaks mentioned above it could form an element of the vision we badly need.


  Here the vision was not to major on new high-speed lines (but with exceptions such as Bern/Olten). A smaller country of narrow crowded valleys and the need for expensive tunnels supports such a decision. However, there is an appropriate if different vision.

  A regular repeating connection matrix links most places. The timetable is the same 365 days a year; services are clockface and frequencies constant throughout the day. There are hourly daytime freight paths. Infrastructure investment is focused on trimming minutes between connection nodes to enhance the number of connections available in the connection matrix. End to end journey time reduction is not the prime goal. Bi-directional signalling is extensive to accommodate tidal flows in and out of stations to deliver multiple connections.

  The French TGV timetable largely adopts a standard clockface timetable.

  Here it is integration (including with bus, tram and boat) and a constant clockface timetable that is world class and the guiding vision.


  This short paper cannot layout a complete UK vision, but asks some questions that point the way. It points out the need for one by suggesting that French and Swiss success has depended on a long-term vision and saying that WCML is what happens without an appropriate vision. Perhaps the lurch from long term franchising to short term is caused by lack of vision and is just the latest meander through nationalisation, partially implemented Beeching and privatisation. Can we afford to continue in an industry with long term investment horizons with short-term mentality that is the product of no vision?

  The vision for UK may be some mixture of the French and Swiss models. We will soon have a dedicated high-speed line from St Pancras to the Channel Tunnel and thence Europe. Perhaps we need such a line to the north and west. What are the conurbations we wish to link in this way? What is the break distance between internal flights and high-speed rail? The French say 3.5 hours of 150 mph+rail travel. That would encompass most of the UK population on lines from London but we do not have the space available to the French.

  Should we have a new dedicated high-speed alignment to the north to feed into existing infrastructure for Manchester and Leeds? Is Birmingham too close to London to benefit from use of such a route? Would the removal of longer distance trains to a new route allow an acceptable fast London/Birmingham service to co-exist with locals and freight on existing track? Would the high-speed route to Glasgow be via an upgraded and dedicated high-speed Settle/Carlisle route? Would an upgraded York/Edinburgh alignment be adequate? Should a new spinal dedicated high-speed alignment proceed further north? Would the Virgin ECML proposal be the vision? Should new lines parallel the M1/M6 with branches to major conurbation's (eg a branch along the M62).

  Should an exclusive high-speed route to the west be achieved by quadrupling throughout between Reading and Bristol Parkway to create a dedicated high-speed pair of tracks with through trains proceeding to Cardiff and Bristol/Plymouth on upgraded alignments or with tilting trains? Could the Berks & Hants route then handle more freight and better services calling at stops between Newbury and Taunton? Should there be a Bristol/Birmingham dedicated high-speed link?

  Should the Southwest have a new line possibly a tunnel under London to Heathrow then follow M3/A303 to Andover and along the MSWJ to Burbage/Savernake. There could then be branches, one to use the B&H and the other to Swindon to proceed to a separate pair of tracks to Bristol Parkway.

  Should these north and west lines use a London bypass (even if not high speed) to join the channel tunnel link? With electric traction from the north and on the channel tunnel link, does the link to the west need this? What is our vision on traction? Will travel to mainland Europe always be by air apart from the Southeast? Will the West be the poor relation?

  Freight has an 80 per cent target increase but no vision of how it is to be delivered with expanding slow and fast passenger services. What about the Great Central proposals? How can the volume of coal from Avonmouth to Didcot co-exist with other traffic? How will 24 daily trains of Containers get through Southcote Junction travelling from Southampton to the West Midlands?

  The non high-speed railway could better adopt the Swiss model of regular clockface connecting services, including connections for high-speed services. Some Regional Transport Strategies seek better local service as a means of delivering the spatial strategy in their Regional Planning Guidance. We may need to create space for this on the network, unless RPG/RTS agreed by DTLR is to be frustrated by the railway. The SRA's Strategic Agenda did not interpret strategy in the terms I have used above. The hiatus in the refranchising process has not said it is seeking a strategy or long term vision. Some of the RTS documents (within their regions) move to a vision of a Swiss style regional timetable. The absence of a compatible national vision for rail could find RPG/RTS approved by DTLR vetoed by the SRA that is not working to any particular vision.

  There is an urgent need to use the current hiatus to commission blue-sky thinking on our railway vision and strategy. We need technical, economic and environmental study of the role of rail and political debate to agree to a long-term vision. The steady progress in Switzerland was based on a referendum 20 years ago, that insulates the investment programme from short-term politics. Should we put the vision to the people? The government needs good railway news for the next election. The hoped for short-term benefits may be thin on the ground given the near capacity use of much of the infrastructure and the long-term nature of investment. The production of a bold visionary plan with honesty about its delivery timescale maybe that good news. Ownership of it by the people could be even more powerful.

  The requirement for the SRA to deliver a Strategy quickly that will only be a tweak on the inadequate Strategic Agenda should not be mistaken for the missing vision. The government could do well to put that on hold with the refranchising process, but only if work on the "Vision" starts.

September 2001

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