HS2 holds great potential, but the government must ensure all our railways are fit for the future

The High Speed Rail project holds great potential, but to make the most of that investment, the government must ensure all our railways are fit for the future.

Stephen Joseph is the chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport

We welcome the government’s long term commitment to the railways in the form of HS2. to make the most of that investment, however, we need the whole network to be part of the plan.

In announcing a route for HS2 [see High Speed Rail: Investing in Britain’s Future – Phase Two: The route to Leeds, Manchester and beyond (pdf)], transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin was clear why the government is spending £33 billion on new high speed lines to link London with the Midlands and north of England:

“Rebalancing and rebuilding our economy; and generating the growth and jobs that will allow us to compete and win in the 21st century global marketplace.

That bold vision is some way off – the first HS2 trains aren’t expected to run for 20 years. Our railways face pressing concerns which need to be dealt with now.

By some measures the railways are in good health. Passenger numbers have gone up every year since 1993. Tuesday’s National Passenger Survey (pdf) showed most of those train users are satisfied with the railways. But you don’t have to dig very deep before a different picture begins to emerge.

The survey also showed a third of passengers are unhappy about overcrowding; worse, less half believe they get value for money. These need to be the immediate priorities for the government.

Ticket price increases cause fury every year. We have the highest fares in Europe and they’re rising much faster than incomes. Nearly 4,000 people have already signed our petition with 38 Degrees to get ticket prices down. The government must use the findings of its Fares Review, due in May, to end the above inflation formula for calculating fares and commit to reducing ticket prices in real terms.

As for overcrowding, passenger numbers are as high now as they were in the 1920s. HS2 will help when it comes on line in the mid 2030s, but faster and broader action is needed if the railways are to provide the speedy, efficient and convenient network for the whole country.

On the 50th anniversary of Beeching Report, the government has dipped a welcome toe in the water by committing £20 million to a new stations fund. Early signs are the fund will be significantly over-subscribed. As our Railways Fit for the Future campaign shows, the time has come not just for one-off re-openings (welcome though these are), but a coherent and far-reaching assessment of the case for new stations and the reopening of entire lines.

All this will cost money. But by committing to HS2, the government has shown it understands the benefits of investing in rail. Furthermore, as the débâcle with the West Coast franchise exposed, there are better and more efficient ways of running the railways. We will shortly publish new research comparing franchise models. In particular, a wider adoption of the model used by London Overground and Merseyrail might give better value for money and allow quicker response to local needs.

HS2 holds great potential; to make the most of that investment, government needs to make sure all of our railways are fit for the future.

See also:

Wheels still on despite HS2 delayDecember 7th, 2011

Train journeys from Hell: What is to be done?March 23rd, 2011

There are concerns with High Speed Rail but it’s still worth doingMarch 10th 2011

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