7 Jul 2008

Kemble-Swindon line needs doubling: write now!

Train timesMany will know that like others I have repeatedly called for the reinstating of the double rail track between Kemble and Swindon (see previous blog entry here).

That redoubling would allow for more frequent train services, encourage more freight to travel by rail and avoid chaos whenever the Severn rail tunnel is closed for repair.
This project was a priority for funding - but is now in danger of being dropped. See Martin Whitesides' letter to local press today here.

Gloucestershire County Council, Stroud District Council and our MP are all backing this campaign. However we do also need hundreds of ordinary people to write in to Bill Emery, ORR, 1 Kemble St, London WC2B 4AN, Ruth Kelly, Transport Secretary, House of Commons, London WC1 and Network Rail, 1 Gloucester St, Swindon.

It seems that Cameron's appeal for funds for another rail project are putting this one in jeopardy. But the problems are deeper as the great rail journalist Christian Wolmar writes:

"There are, of course, a whole host of difficulties ahead. No costing is available so far and the work may prove to be more difficult than expected. When the track was singled, it was moved to the middle because of concerns about weak embankments, and both moving the track and shoring up the embankments will add to the costs. When Chiltern and Railtrack redoubled just nine miles of plain line track between Bicester and Aynho junctions three years ago, the bill was a staggering £60m.Therefore, it would not take much for a relatively modest scheme like Swindon to Kemble to reach three figures quite easily."

"Then there is the issue of compensation, the craziest aspect of the current fragmented structure of the railways. NR has to pay compensation for disruption to operators when it is carrying out work to make their services run more efficiently. How mad is that? Yet, by then, First Great Western is likely to be struggling with its onerous franchise, making the company desperate to wrest any revenue it can from NR."

"And even when the line does get redoubled, Great Western is likely to want to see a reduction in its premium payments for running any extra trains that would be allowed by this enhanced capacity as they may not pay for themselves."

Christian Wolmar has also criticised privatisation - see here his comments - he also points out that the Tories don't have policies on rail since the departure of Chris Grayling (see here) - but perhaps most shocking of all was to read the Guardian last week and see the comment from a Labour Minister that "if the Tories hadn't privatised the railways, New Labour would have sold them off when it came to power in 1997."!!

Every opinion poll says the public are in favour of renationalising our expensive and fragmented railway - it is only the Green party who are serious about such a policy. We should be following New Zealand - but as Gerry Doherty, General secretary of TSSA wrote in a letter to The Guardian noted "we know that the prime minister will not do the sensible thing and adopt a politically popular policy which would start to undo the damage of privatisation. This is why we are proposing a step-by-step process to bring railway franchises back into public ownership. The government always argues that it is too expensive to buy out the rail companies and quotes the ludicrous figure of £20bn to do so. We would simply allow the franchises to expire and then ask Network Rail to take over the running of them. This would cost the taxpayer nothing and rapidly bring about a publicly owned, joined-up railway. Gordon would not have to mention renationalisation and we could have an affordable railway that could start to compete with state-owned networks in the rest of Europe."

Oh so simple....I strongly recommend the article by Seumas Milne in The Guardian on New Zealand - see here - in that he talks of NEw Zealands pioneering role in the welfare state then embracing a free-market programme of wholesale privatisation, liberalisation and deregulation. This finally imploded amidst a litany of social and economic failures: stagnation, unemployment, bankruptcies, crime and rampant inequality. Two decades on, another New Zealand government, this time a more progressive Labour coalition headed by Helen Clark, is again at the forefront of political change - leading the revival of public ownership.

On the first of this month Clark's government renationalised the country's railways and ferry services, privatised in the early 90s and subsequently run down and asset-stripped by the Australian owners.

The article has much good info - and includes mention of the Campaign for Better Transport's report last week that walk-on fares are on average nearly five times those booked in advance - and all ticket prices are set to spiral in the next few years. Shame on this Government for getting to this appalling point where most experiences of public transport are so very poor and expensive.

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