Trains and panes and things
Soapbox - Trains
I noticed recently that the new railway authority, Network Rail, claim that they will need £54bn over the next ten years in order to get the rail network up to the point where trains can run on time. Even by government spending standards this is an enormous amount of money which compares unfavourably with the £7bn that it is proposed to spend on road improvements. It means that we have to provide, nearly £1,000 for every man woman and child in the country, just to bring the railways up to scratch. Since only a proportion of the population are net taxpayers the burden on each of them will amount to several thousand pounds. On the basis of past experience we might guess that even this vast sum will prove to be an underestimate. Faced with this level of expenditure one is bound to ask if it is wholly justified.
Do we need so many trains? How often have you sat at a level crossing during the day and watched a train go by with one or two passengers on board. Having spent this vast sum of money and got the trains to run on time, would it result in many more people getting out of their cars and travelling by train? I doubt it. Do the trains have difficulty in running to time because the schedules are too demanding? Is it really so important to get to Manchester, Glasgow or wherever in such quick times? How much maintenance cost would we save if we accepted that the trains need not run quite so fast? Do they really need to travel at speeds in excess of 125 mph? Isn't 100 mph fast enough, or 95 even? Should we leave the railways to market forces? Governments of all colours have set their face against supporting unprofitable industries or "bailing out lame ducks" as was said in Mrs Thatcher's day. If the fares charged were economic many of the services would cease to operate and it would be possible to trim down the maintenance to a more manageable programme.
No doubt many would regard such talk as heresy, yet to meet such financial demands as are proposed will result in severe curtailment of many of the other plans for public expenditure, such as education, health and roads. These are areas of expenditure that will benefit everyone, rather than just those who travel by train regularly. Surely the assumption that we have to run all the existing rail services and run to the existing schedules deserves to be challenged if to do so can only be achieved at such enormous cost to the British public. If the expenditure could only be halved it would bring considerable benefit to us all.