Rail review not up to speed

In the latest effort to revitalise the UK’s rail network, the transport secretary Ruth Kelly has announced a multi-billion pound 30-year programme of modernisation.

Aimed at reducing overcrowding by 2014, the rail review also looks to the future and outlines a package of measures designed to help the network cope with a doubling of passenger numbers by 2030.

Key pledges include extra carriages, upgrades to more than 150 stations, and the approval of a £5.5bn modernisation programme for Thameslink.

The subtext of the review is deeply self-congratulatory: after addressing many of the reliability and safety issues that plagued the railways during the 1990s and getting passenger numbers up, the railways are now, we are told, poised to enter a golden new era courtesy of Gordon Brown’s government.

But while many of the review’s recommendations are laudable, The Engineer suggests that it fails to live up to its billing as ‘the most positive statement about the growth and development of rail for over 50 years’.

For starters, with a timetable of seven years to make a series of relatively modest improvements, there is little in the report that promises an immediate solution to the critical problem of overcrowding.

And the news that revenue from fares is to fund a growing share of spending on the railways makes it likely that ticket prices will increase long before the benefits of even the shortest-term changes are felt.

What is perhaps most disappointing, though, is that there is barely a nod towards the kind of ambitious new projects that TheEngineer has long argued should be at the heart of our future rail strategy.

Later this year, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link will begin running all the way though to St Pancras, and a high-speed domestic service on the same line will follow in 2009.

This considerable engineering achievement, and the enthusiasm surrounding it, should provide the perfect springboard for a nationwide high-speed link — and many, including UK Maglev consortium Ultraspeed, are queuing up to help make this dream a reality.

But sadly, the review rules out such options. Indeed, the closest it comes to discussing high-speed rail is the briefest — and hardly confidence-inspiring — reference to Crossrail, the proposed high-speed rail link from Berkshire to Essex, via central London.

Instead, although the review acknowledges that its estimate to be able to transport twice the number of passengers by 2030 could be outstripped by demand, the most radical solution it proposes is the possible introduction of extra-long trains — hardly inspiring.

If the government is really concerned about what our railways are going to be like in 30 years time, and is keen to re-ignite the UK’s love affair with its railways, surely what is really required is bold technological innovation that will prepare the network for the 22nd century — not a bit of expensive tinkering with what we’ve already got.

Jon Excell, features editor