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

Memorandum by Cambridge Heath and London Fields Rail Users Group (TYP 22)

  The general situation on the railways is worse now than it was in 1997, the year when the Labour government came to power, and worse than when the 10 Year Plan was announced. The situation has also changed since the publication of the plan with Railtrack in administration and many rail projects shelved. The rail industry in general has been committed by public changes of policy to significant long-term safety expenditure which will have only a marginal impact on increasing use of the network and may inhibit development of services on main lines, as well as provision of new or upgraded services on secondary lines.


  With 30 per cent more people travelling by rail, the network has not expanded to cope, with the exception of the Channel Tunnel rail link and the Birmingham Proof House junction improvements. Both Railtrack and the train operators have made experienced staff redundant and then blamed staff shortages for a failure to run trains or to provide engineering improvements. Most rail reopening schemes—even those that are clearly good value for money—have been stalled because of a failure of the various parties to agree and the rail companies to see any financial advantage. Local authorities find it difficult to deal with both Railtrack and the Strategic Rail Authority. Targets need to be set to bring rail services to towns of certain size over a set period. Targets for the reopening of a fixed number of rail lines per year should be set.


  The Government's multi-modal studies have had an appalling effect on the 10 Year Plan. They are providing a cover for renewed road building and are failing to take proper consideration of rail. Railtrack and train operating companies are failing to provide evidence to the studies of how rail can expand to prevent the need for new roads both for freight and passengers. Both Railtrack and the train operators—and even the Strategic Rail Authority—have undermined these arguments when they are put by voluntary and campaigning groups. For instance, the mothballed Cambridge-St Ives rail line should obviously be a key part of the rail network, providing local, regional and long-distance services but Railtrack has colluded in attempts to turn it into a busway which will have little impact on solving the region's long-standing transport problems. The multimodal studies should be suspended until ways can be devised of presenting the alternatives to road building.


  The 10 Year Plan's aim of reducing road congestion does not seem directed at rail managers. If they have a role, it is surely to make it easier for passengers to use trains. Many however are interested only in what happens on their train company's patch. Rail network maps were deliberately removed from many trains in the years after 1994 to be replaced by maps showing only that company's lines. The 10 Year Plan should be refocused on people who need to travel. Targets should be set to reduce congestion on rail, rather than road. There has been virtually no attempt to make it easier for people trying to gain access to rail stations. Buses still do not generally call at rail stations. There has been virtually no attempt to improve conditions for walkers trying to get to trains or buses.


  Often travellers are not given the necessary information to travel and to make changes between modes. Bus timetables are a rarity, even at rail stations. Britain's busiest rail station—Clapham Junction—does not have an integrated information system. Notices are out of date and misleading. At one of Britain's biggest stations—London Waterloo—a good train information system has been replaced by an inferior one. Targets should be set so that every station has a time-defined programme of getting its information provisions right.


  In many areas, there is more skill and expertise—and certainly vision—in the many rail user groups and the voluntary rail lobby than among rail managers and companies who are not motivated to increase rail's share of the market. Many MPs are more enthusiastic about rail's potential than rail managers. Career rail staff, and that means, people who deal with the public too, should be encouraged to remain in the industry. Often they want to leave. The industry should be set targets to increase the numbers of skilled staff available and to show how their training programmes are to achieve this.


  The Strategic Rail Authority has failed to give consistent and sensible guidance on increasing capacity, providing late night, early morning or bank holiday services, electrification, fare levels or the importance of improving secondary lines to feed into main lines. Several secondary line services are a disgrace, with widespread cancellations and bus substitution. The SRA must be much more proactive and must be given more public funds to implement schemes like the East-West rail link which can then be handed over to Railtrack and the train operators to run, to strictly defined standards. The SRA should set a whole series of standards — for instance facilities at de-staffed stations and minimum standards on trains. Minimum service standards of train frequency should be set, every 10 or 15 minutes for inner suburban stations like Cambridge Heath and London Fields which currently have only two trains an hour and no trains on Sunday. And this is in a densely populated city area.


  While European countries are building high-speed rail lines, there has been a consistent attempt by Britain to hide its head in the sand. The West Coast main line fiasco is one result. Britain probably needs a new high-speed line to the North West and Scotland. Other lines need to be upgraded for higher speeds. Unless the Great Western main line and the Midland main line are electrified, significant speed increases will not be possible. The London-Brighton line is a ramshackle, overcrowded operation with hour-long journey times. There is no reason why trains should not provide a 30-minute journey time but that would mean reopening the Uckfield-Lewes line so that some trains could be diverted. A programme of high-speed line building should be agreed.


  Rail managers have continued to block attempts by cyclists to use bikes and trains as an alternative to the car. This is particularly true in many holiday areas, like Wales and western England, although in Scotland and the Anglia region, managers have made significant efforts to tackle some of the problems. Targets should be set to increase the provision of on-train space for cycles.


  Several of the train operating companies are owned by bus companies which have lowered standards on rail to match the inadequate service offered by many buses. The concept of a premium inter-city service has been devalued with new trains being brought into service that are less comfortable than their predecessors. Minimum standards for inter-city, regional and local trains should be agreed.


  The importance of electrification to both passengers and to efficient rail operation has not been recognised by Railtrack and the train operators who have been consistent in trying to avoid paying for such sensible long-term investment. The SRA has acquiesced in this short-term financial approach. Targets for a programme of electrification should be agreed, starting with infill projects and small schemes like Walsall-Rugeley and Crewe-Kidsgrove. The Midland and Great Western main lines should be completed in the medium term.


  The train companies have undermined the Network Card so that it is much more expensive — from 2002 — for families to travel together in the South East area. There has been a preoccupation with cheap tickets with many restrictions while general fare levels have continued to increase. Targets should be set to reduce the real level of fares (taking inflation into account) so that they are returned to 1970, relative to motoring costs, as a first step.


  Many stations have become even more threatening for rail users because of continued de-staffing. Standards should be set so that stations can only be left unstaffed if proper alternative arrangements, including the provision of CCTV and real-time train information are made.

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