Failing to deliver

In reference to the statement that ‘Today, we are seeing the benefit of rail privatisation — there were some difficulties, but it is now starting to deliver’ (Interview, 4 May 2009), deliver what?

We have one of the most expensive railway systems in Europe, using a Victorian-inherited network, complicated through being mixed traffic throughout — apart from the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, built to French standards using French-designed trains that I have been advised are the most complex in the UK, and yet the most reliable. These trains are based upon a substantial prototype-testing period in France for its own dedicated high-speed TGV trains from the early 1980s.

The other notable, and questionable element of the railway policy in the UK, is to purchase railway trains to specification, put them into service, determine the design faults as passengers suffer with poor reliability, and patch, repair, modify as they go along, trying to provide a railway service. The fact that so many railway stations have displays to indicate when the next train is expected, means that it is accepted that passenger railway timetables are works of fiction.

In the 1970s, under British Railways, the fanciful Advanced Passenger Train was being promoted as the cure-all, while still pursuing the idea of using such a train on an old, mixed traffic railway, while the rest of the world looked towards dedicated high-speed passenger railways, most notably the Japanese.

Conventional railway engineers in the UK realised the folly of this approach and instead promised to deliver a diesel train, based upon the best of existing technology, that could run at 125mph on the existing network while retaining the same stopping distance from 125mph as a conventional train from 100mph. No need for fancy new technology, no need for major reworking of the signalling system, no overhead wire installation, a full prototype with several years of service to remove the design flaws, and 33 years later, it is still in front-line service across the UK.

New trains have also arrived, such as the tilting Pendolino — a train used on the West Coast Main Line after a massive renewal of overhead wires — and yet the train is no faster than a 33-year-old diesel train, less reliable, and the new journey time’s only marginally better than in the 1960s and 1970s using conventional electric-locomotive hauled coaching stock.

In addition, why purchase 140mph-capable electric trains for the East Coast Main Line after electrification of the whole route, then run these trains at 125mph to replace the very successful IC125 diesel train that ran at — wait for it — 125mph? The same applies to the West Coast Main Line: 140mph trains purchased, a massive expenditure on new track and overhead wires, and yet when completed, the line speed is limited to 125mph. Why bother, when 33-year-old diesel trains, with new engines, are more reliable, substantially cheaper, and the rail system does not fail when electrified railways have power failures?

Finally, there is the issue of pursuing fully electrified railways, possibly with higher speed. Does this mean that Network Rail is going to invest in new power-generating stations? The present facilities are approaching the end of their service life, without any real effort to produce a substantial alternative with greater capacity.

Back to steam trains it may be, and the dogmatic patch-and-repair of a Victorian railway system, with Europe’s, if not the world’s highest rail fares. Privatisation a success? I think not, as it has clearly been very wasteful of money, while constantly being financially compensated by the UK taxpayer and fare payer.

Perhaps the railways — like the banks — as private companies in the UK, are showing that we, as a nation, simply accept poor service and are happy to fully compensate for failure. It pays to fail, it seems.

Andrew Porter, Stevenage