High speed hopes

Faced with a rail network where the difference between a peak and an off peak ticket is equivalent to the cost of a flight somewhere hot and sunny, it wouldn’t take a foreign visitor long to figure out that our network is an unpredictable beast.

For confirmation, consider the curious crossroads the industry faces today.

On the one hand we have the cash-strapped Train Operating Companies (TOCs) who, stung by falling passenger numbers, are reported to be going cap in the hand to the government in an effort to renegotiate their contracts. The result could be fewer off-peak services and a reduction in staffing levels.

On the other, in stark contrast to the gloomy picture painted by TOCs, we have the prospect of a brand spanking new high speed rail link, bristling with the latest technology and whisking passengers from London to Birmingham in around 40 minutes.

Although undoubtedly raised partly as a sweetener to appease Heathrow runway opponents, the decision to properly investigate a high speed link is long overdue – and the findings of High Speed Two, the company set up by transport secretary Geoff Hoon to examine the viability of a high speed link will be awaited with interest.

As The Engineer has long argued – the reduced travel time offered by a high speed North-South rail link would bring many advantages. Its construction would also represent exactly the kind of public works project that many believe will help ensure the survival of the economy.

Clearly it’s early days and there’s a huge difference between a review and a go-ahead but if a high speed rail link does eventually get the green light government should learn an important lesson from the current situation. High speed must not mean high cost. It will only succeed in tempting people off the roads if it’s affordable, and that means cheaper than existing train journeys. In other words, in order to work, passengers will have to be put before profit.

In fact, Mr Hoon, while you’re at it – how about nationalising the rest of the rail network too? Despite what they say about falling passenger numbers – this commuter could still do with a bit more space.

Jon Excell, deputy editor