Steves Blog

Renaissance of the railway

30 September 2017

Is the UK’s railway a victim of its own success? This was the view of Chris Grayling MP and Secretary of State for Transport in his opening address at the UK Rail Summit on 13 September, where John Mogridge and I listened to an array of guest speakers discussing the revival of the rail industry since privatisation in 1996, and what the future holds.

Before privatisation, British Rail was considered to be a beleaguered state run institution with a record of poor performance, falling government investment and many key lines and stations subject to reduced services and closures.

Twenty years on the UK has seen the biggest shift to rail from other modes of transport, in Europe, with passenger journeys doubling to 4.5 million per day and London’s Waterloo station being the first transport terminal in Europe to service more than 200 million passengers a year.

The downside to this increased popularity, as recognised by First Group’s Chief Executive Tim O’Toole, is that supply is now lagging behind demand with overcrowded and outmoded trains. Although, as the new operator for South West Trains, he was quick to point out that 90 new trains will be delivered by mid-2019 adding more than 50,000 extra seats in and out of Waterloo station each day during rush hour.

Bodies responsible for rail infrastructure have had their own challenges with the failure of Railtrack, following a number of fatal incidents. Network Rail, subsequently formed in 2002, whilst significantly improving its safety record, over time the publicly run infrastructure firm has seen a decline in performance on key metrics including reliability, project delivery and financial management. With three public enquiries in the past two years, the current Chairman of Network Rail, Sir Peter Hendy, has set out his plans to devolve responsibility for infrastructure to the routes.

This change will bring the track, train and passenger together for the first time as part of a major transformation programme due to be complete by March 2019.

Although there have been some ups and downs in the past 20 years, national rail has seen nothing short of a renaissance within the UK and we should be proud of this achievement - having one of the safest and fastest growing railways in Europe.

So what does the future hold? It is clear that the passenger is being put at the forefront of future policy with new trains and smart ticketing, but with uncertainty in the political landscape, a call for further change and the prospect of nationalisation may not be too far away.

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