Ministers are being bombarded on all sides by irate politicians worried about the performance of the passenger railway in their constituencies. From those Tories in the constituencies south of London stretching to the sea, the performance of the trains has been heavily criticised; trains are always late, we can never get a seat, they close the line for upgrading and the diversion takes ten minutes longer and, in the Thames Valley, all these things plus we want the electrification but don t like the design of the catenary and masts and they work at night . Private meetings between ministers, officials and these angry politicians are supplemented by a sustained media campaign that heads must roll . The Labour party is also critical of the Government s transport policy, usually on the level of fares and the need to nationalise the railway, and other MPs are angry that new works, including electrification, have been delayed. Is all this fair? I am a regular critic of parts of the railway, the services and Network Rail. The fallout from the costing, programming and budgeting of enhancements issue still goes on; again, this was a fall out for years of trying to keep up with the growth and improved speeds and quality that the industry and politicians want to see. Lessons have been learned and the management and delivery is now stabilised. In the meantime, the essential maintenance and renewals work, which makes the UK probably the best railway in Europe, continues.
So minsters get it in the neck from both sides and, supported by some media, the call goes out for heads to roll. But these are generally issues which can and should be changed without destroying the railway that we use. No amount of rolling heads, be they ministers, officials, Network Rail or whoever will solve these problems immediately, and many such changes will actually delay improvements that we all know are desperately needed but which take time to implement and when they are being implemented, there will inevitably be disruption and delays. Look at some of the statistics. The ORR reports that, in the last financial year ending in April 2014, 1.59 billion passenger journeys were made in Great Britain on franchised train services. This was an increase of 5.7% over the previous year and was the highest officially recorded number since the current monitoring began in 2002-03 and double the figure for the late 1990s.
More train kilometres were operated as well, with a combined total of 524.8 million kilometres for all UK passenger operators, the distance has increased by a huge 17%. Network Rail forecasts that passenger numbers will double in the next 20 to 25 years. Freight transport is also expected to double in the next 20 years, adding to the capacity problem. Everyone wants more freight on the rail, whether for environmental reasons or so that trucks do not get in the way of their cars, but this is sometimes constrained by capacity as well.
So let us step back and think, since it may take 10 years to plan and build a major enhancement more for projects such as Crossrail 1 what would be needed to accommodate double the number of passengers compared with even today s figures? Look at the existing network; many parts are already full in the number of train they can run; some parts of the Southern network have more trains per hour than some London Underground lines. You cannot double the number of trains, although ERTMS signalling would give some 30% increase perhaps in ten or 15 years time. What about longer trains? These are possible on parts of the network, but in the most overcrowded parts south of London there are already 12 car trains, and how can longer ones be accommodated at stations such as Waterloo or Charing Cross? 24 coach trains would be unpopular with passengers anyway.
So build more tracks, flyovers, tunnels, platforms etc? Suddenly passengers become the opposition to any change that might affect them; look at HS2 or the GW electrification. They may have a case, but the time and cost of dealing with such objections must limit the number of such schemes. Being realistic, HS2 s real raison d etre is to release capacity on the existing WCML; what a pity it was not sold as that from the start, rather than to get rich business people to Birmingham from London 20 minutes quicker. The cost is huge, although quite likely to be cheaper than trying to add more tracks to existing lines, with all the construction difficulties and local opposition that this might cause too. Tunnels are the obvious answer, and of course Crossrail 2 would help a lot in relieving the congestion in South London and beyond but, again, the cost will be huge, and people in the Northern Powerhouse area, wherever that is defined, might argue that they need a fairer share of the finance for new capacity lines, to go some way to redress the 10:1 imbalance of transport spending between the London area an elsewhere.
So the short answer is that the network is full; ERTMS will help, but only in part enough to meet this doubling of demand in 20 to 25 years. Where does renationalisation come in all this? Network Rail is already nationalised, and some TOCs are also nationalised, albeit owned by another member state. Would the state be able to provide the new rolling stock which is appearing in greater numbers to meet this demand? At the moment, most new rolling stock is privately financed, often on the back of a government guarantee that the trains will earn money and be used. Can we realistically see the Treasury stumping up the cash to pay for new trains, on top of the money it gives Network Rail and some of the franchised operators? Can we see DfT officials, good as they are, suddenly becoming TOC MDs and innovating, investing and improving their services in the way that the TOCs do now? As long as there is good competition and a sensible and professional franchise competition, I see no reason to change. We probably have the best people in the industry running many of the TOCs and Network Rail, and we have a supportive but sometimes critical ministerial team, who understand that there are no magic wands to increase capacity and reliability; improvements are happening and will continue, but when so much of the railway is running at or near capacity, there will inevitably be hiccups. What a great situation for the industry to be in! We probably have the best railway in Europe in terms of growth, service quality and reliability.
So MPs are baying for change a worrying combination of Tories south of London and Labour. But what do they want instead? If heads roll and there is massive restructuring, train orders will get cancelled or delays, NR will have its enhancements paused, and the network will get more and more unreliable.
Rail monopoly news.
An irregular comment paper from Tony Berkeley, 7 November 2015
France and Germany s railways are falling apart; other member states may not wish to follow them.
France and Germany still lobbied the Transport Council against the changes that could revitalise their railways. Now, with the EC/EP/Council Trilogues already started, I reflect on where these railway leaders have got to. I challenge the Commission to stick to their principles!
France and Germany have conspired to kill much of the governance parts of the 4th Railway Package that would bring competition and growth to the sector. Instead, they are dragging the whole sector into what could be terminal decline on the basis that, if DB and SNCF fail, they will ensure that no other rail company will succeed; the winners will be road transport. In Germany, there are reports that DB is in severe financial trouble, seeking to sell off parts of Arriva and DB Schenker and cutting 30% of its freight network A senior DB manager admitted at a conference in May DB cannot survive without transferring funds from Infrastructure Manager to its Railway Undertakings. This all may explain Germany s very strong actions against any liberalisation and transparency proposals in the 4th Railway Package. . Several diplomatic sources indicate that Germany had a crucial influence on the development of the project compromise on governance, making it easier for financial movement within the holding companies (Article 7d). This governance reform does nothing to improve the current situation and favours the incumbent. (Contexte.com). DB s forthcoming restructuring could reduce its rail freight by 30%. Will it sell its assets to competitors to enable them to take it over?
Hidden subsidies from DB Netz itself part financed by the German states, will also help DB buy more rail companies abroad as well as Chinese trains. Here trade union IG Metall and the supply industry organisation VDB have complained jointly to the German government about DB s intention to buy trains and spare parts from China in the next 3-5 years. They argue that it is unacceptable that a German state-owned enterprise buys subsidised Chinese products with German tax payer s money which jeopardises the German rail industry and its prices. All good reasons for keeping transparency in the 4th Railway Package. The general rail situation in France has clearly got worse as a result of the reintegration of SNCF and RFF into a vertically integrated monolith that does not seem to know what it is doing. SNCF is said to be the most hated company in France and, according to FNAUT, the infrastructure is degraded, lines are closed and the quality of the services is no longer acceptable. Increases in passenger fares and freight access charges are driving customers to road.
Now with the French Transport Minister stating publicly that transparency should be put into the system, taxpayers will discover how much money is actually spent on what and where. In the meantime, SNCF is still trying to stifle competition in the passenger sector by seeking to delay it until 2030, by which time its senior management will have retired; it is also doing its best to wreck any attempts by freight competitors to improve their service quality and grow. SNCF is also in trouble financially, so their easy way out is to put up access charges, using the extra cash to subsidise its incumbent operators and preventing by all means any fair competition with other passenger or freight operators.
So France and Germany have led the way to ensuring that the Transport Council allows these crumbling monopolies to stagger on, with no transparency or regulation on possible unfair subsidies.
In the UK, Network Rail and the Regulator are both in trouble over cost increases of enhancements to the network, but the network is generally in good condition. Our problems are one of managing growth a possibly doubling of traffic in 20 years. We have transparency and an inclusive and fully independent infrastructure manager. So where are the other member states in all this? Still frightened of Germany and France? Where is the competitive single market to which EU institutions and members states have signed up?
Now there are indications that the European Commission is bowing to German pressure once again and accepting the dilution of the transparency clauses so as to allow DB and SNCF operators to receive subsidies without any disclosure and, along with all the other barriers to entry (such as incumbents having priority input to infrastructure managers), to make any competition as unfair and as risky as possible.
The European Parliament can still put this right in the forthcoming trilogies with the EC and Council, by strengthening the rules on transparency, resisting hidden financial subsidies, and going back to the original role of the infrastructure manager with full and independent responsibilities.
That is what will attract private investment and grow the rail sector.
7 November 2015
Tony Berkeley is a member of the UK House of Lords, Chairman of the Rail Freight Group and a Board Member of the European Rail Freight association. The opinions expressed here are his own.
After years of lobbying and the start of infraction proceedings by the European Commission against the UK and French Government, Eurotunnel has today announced reductions in access charges for rail freight services using the Channel Tunnel. The changes, which take effect from June 2014, will see tolls for the off peak period, when most traffic operates, reduce by 25% compared to 2013 levels, with no further increase until at least 2018. Eurotunnel s ETICA incentive scheme is also to be enhanced and extended such that new rail services will see an average overall discount of around 35-40%.The commitment by Eurotunnel comes as a response to the infraction proceedings opened by the European Commission against France and the UK in 2013 for their failure to implement European rules on access to infrastructure in the Channel Tunnel.
This should see a significant increase in rail freight traffic, from the current seven trains per day compared with a forecast of 40 for when the Tunnel opened in 1995. Further details:1.Eurotunnel s press release can be found at http://www.eurotunnelgroup.com/uploadedFiles/assets-uk/Media/Press-Releases/2014-Press-Releases/20140428-ETICA-Europe-UK.pdf 2. The European Commission s press release can be found at http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-14-477_en.htm?locale=en 3.
Rail Freight Group s press release www.rfg.org.uk/news Tony Berkeley is chairman of the Rail Freight Group