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Too many different agendas are blighting rail planning

Jonathan Tyler Passenger Transport Networks York YO1
26 June 2020

Two recent editions of LTT reveal the dire state of railway planning in Britain. You summarise the comprehensive set of suggestions from Greengauge 21 in its submission to the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) review of railway schemes (‘Rethink Mids and North rail plans – Greengauge’ 29 May). Some of the proposals are sound, some questionable. Considering Greengauge’s role as cheerleader for high-speed rail (albeit not in respect of every feature of HS2) this is a welcome “sinner that repenteth” moment. In particular, the reference to the institutional neglect of city centre enhancements and the critique of off-centre hubs such as the proposed one at Toton, between Derby and Nottingham, cover two issues that some of us have been campaigning about for many years.

However, although the NIC’s review was set up in response to the muddle about rail infrastructure planning identified by Doug Oakervee’s review into HS2, the Commission does not have the time, resources or the political freedom to do justice to complex issues that should have been studied long before the then transport secretary Andrew Adonis started the expensive obsession with HS2 and allowed it to be hijacked by utopian engineers.  

The NIC is preoccupied with infrastructure and does not have the capability to explore operational solutions that may be more appropriate in the shorter term. For example, during Covid-19 timekeeping has greatly improved with fewer trains running on the network and freight trains are running more briskly. All this raises questions regarding priorities, on-track competition and the process of planning train paths.

In the same issue, but at the other end of the spectrum, we have a report that the DfT is handing out funds for studies of reopening railway lines and stations. A few may be marginally justified, but most form a random set of thin cases based on sentimentality about branch lines or highly specific local interests. Some will (or should) fall because for little gain they would reduce mainline capacity or delay existing travellers. Many would probably be better served by seriously good bus services integrated with rail. These disjointed initiatives are a recipe for more sub-optimal decisions. Indeed, there is a case for closing a number of little-used stations for the greater good (it was a pity that politicians in Scotland lacked the courage to close Breich on the Glasgow Central to Edinburgh line via Shotts, used even after expensive rebuilding by less than one person a day).

This populist activity by the DfT is also deflecting attention from innumerable modest but cumulatively significant deficiencies in the existing railway: what, for example, has happened to the study proposed by four West Northamptonshire councils into reopening the potentially-strategic but unglamorous Market Harborough to Northampton railway that I commended in a letter in LTT of 23 November 2018? We note, too, the England’s Economic Heartland’s road-heavy shortlist of studies includes proposals to investigate options for rail in several corridors.

And in the latest issue you report: 

  • former rail manager David Prescott making a technically interesting argument for bringing infrastructure and operations together while the Government dithers about implementing the Williams Review, probably because it implies greater intervention in the public interest rather than reliance on private market mechanisms 
  • Transport for the North sensibly but belatedly bemoaning the disjointed planning for the TransPennine Upgrade project, Northern Powerhouse Rail and HS2, with the risk of confusion at best and large-scale misplaced expenditure at worst
  • Network Rail is reported to be busy, at last, on an electrification programme;  and
  • William Barter's letter provides the theoretical argument for 18 trains/hour on HS2 without explaining why it has not yet been achieved anywhere else and not appreciating the huge gamble it represents – if it works, great, if it doesn’t the already weak business case is undermined and a lot of people are disappointed (but we won't know until the 2030s and after £100bn has been spent).

May I therefore suggest, not for the first time, that what is needed to address this mess is to borrow some public transport planners from Switzerland? They should be invited to design a national multi-modal plan for desirable public transport connectivity. It would involve real timetabling to visionary standards, infrastructure enhancements to facilitate that and a staged programme for implementation. Switzerland has achieved an outstanding system with high modal shares for rail and bus through careful planning, public consultation and long-term funding – and it’s still improving. 

If we’re serious about decarbonisation, other environmental goals, inclusivity, and post-Covid economic recovery agendas, we should follow that model.

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