Transport Committee urges more boldness

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The House of Commons Transport Select Committee’s reply to the Department for Transport’s White Paper, Delivering a Sustainable Railway

(click to download complete report as a pdf file)

The White Paper, Delivering a Sustainable Railway, was published a year ago. It set out the UK Government’s 30-year vision for Britain’s railways. Many critical voices were raised regarding its content. Rail pundit, Christian Wolmar, wrote an excellent article for the Transport Times, The dirty hands of the Treasury eagerly cutting back on anything exciting or hopeful in the strategy are all too clear. Virtually all substantial enhancements have been taken out, leaving a handful of schemes that are the basic minimum for the government’s fig leaf of respectability.

Now the Transport Select Committee, have authored their own reaction to the White Paper. After examining over 40 expert witnesses about the government’s strategy, the committee has published Delivering a Sustainable Railway: a 30-year strategy for the railways? Though the language is less blunt than Wolmar’s, the carefully reasoned arguments, backed up with carefully researched evidence, are no less damning.

The Committee’s report (which can be accessed by clicking on its picture at the top of this post) is worth reading in full. If you think it may be dull, here are some extracts to whet your appetite:

10. The High Level Output Statement will give the industry a degree of stability and direction which we welcome… However, where seismic shifts that are likely to remain in the medium-term occur, and where they are likely to create extra passenger growth, we think the Government needs to consider making adjustments to the HLOS. We believe the massive increases in oil prices over the past year, and the fact that prices are expected to remain very high for the foreseeable future represent such a case.

11. The Government’s attempt to set out a long-term vision and strategy for the railways has been widely welcomed across the industry, though many commentators have argued that it needs to go further and be more visionary and radical in its approach. Eurostar argued that, whilst the Aviation White Paper had succeeded in setting out a proper long-term strategy, the Rail White Paper was notable for its failure to create a similarly clear strategy for the railways.

12. Many were critical of what they see as the Government ducking key strategic decisions on issues such as high-speed rail and electrification. Roger Ford, for example, argued that the White Paper lacked real ambition or vision. The West Midlands Regional Rail Forum pointed out that, although the White Paper took cognisance of certain long-term issues such as rolling stock procurement, it failed to develop solid medium- and long-term strategies for the sector as a whole. The document was “very, very concentrated on the control period up to 2014”, neglecting key projects where planning needed to start sooner rather than later. In Peter Rayner’s words, “the White Paper admits the railway will run out of capacity but offers no solutions.”

17. We warmly welcome the Government’s effort to create a long-term vision and strategy for the railways. We are particularly pleased that the White Paper sets out a positive plan for growth. However, we agree with the vast majority of our witnesses from across the industry, that the level of ambition in the White Paper is too modest. The Government’s policy of responding to demand with “just-in-time investments” ignores the potential of rail investment to reduce regional disparities and improve the environment. After years of sustained growth in rail patronage, we urge the Government to be bolder in its vision and to set out a proper long-term strategy, including the planning and development of infrastructure which will improve the environment and the spatial economic development of the country.

Tomorrow, we will look at the fallout for Network Rail from the massive engineering work over runs, and severe service cancellations, that occurred over the New Year period.

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