River Wissey Lovell Fuller

Village Soapbox

February 2004

Ron has some very strong views on UK railways!



The railways are an important component of our transport system, with over one billion journeys made annually. Railway enthusiasts insist that railways have a much more important part to play in a national transport plan. The government might agree in principle but they are beginning to see that the railway network is a black hole into which tax-payers' money is disappearing. A situation made worse by the present ownership and management structure.

Mrs Thatcher regarded privatisation as the panacea for all our industries' ills. The privatisation of the railways was botched, however, so that we now have almost 100 separate companies, including 25 train operators, all of which are subsidised one way or another. This makes for an extremely unwieldy railway system and requires a massive bureaucracy to oversee it all. A radical overhaul of the structure must take place and it has been one of this government's failures not to grasp the nettle. At the time of privatisation of the railways each journey was subsidised by £1.21 (at today's monetary value) which represented a cost to the exchequer of over £1bn. Today each journey is subsidised by £3.80, with a cost to the exchequer of almost £4bn, a not insignificant proportion of this going to cover the profits of all the companies involved. The effect of privatisation has been to see a rise in rail fares in excess of the inflation rate and a more than trebling of the cost of the subsidies in real terms.

Unlike railways roads do not seem to attract many enthusiasts yet they are clearly the preferred means of transport by the majority of people and goods operators. Over 90% of goods transportation is by road and the number of passenger miles travelled by car far far exceeds those travelled by train. Despite this disparity in the relevant importance of rail and road to the national transport needs the government spending on roads is just one tenth of what they are spending on railways. For some years they and the previous government pursued a misguided policy of deliberately not funding road improvements as a means of controlling traffic growth, and they persistently refused to spend anywhere near as much on the roads as they collected in road tax and fuel tax. There is no wonder our roads are now said to be the worst in western Europe. Another aspect of this lopsided thinking is the way in which they are spending huge sums of money in an effort to make railways safer at a time when travelling by train is already ten times safer than travelling by car.

Alistair Darling needs to get his priorities sorted out!

Ron Watts

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