Can a fragmented railway support prosperity?

The Transport Select Committee is conducting five interrelated inquiries into the future of rail with a view to identifying ways to improve capacity, connectivity, affordability and reliability.

With the oldest railway system in the world, the UK has a long and proud rail history. By reducing transport times, lowering transport costs and stimulating investment, the railway laid the foundations in the 19th century for the prosperity realised for many years that followed.

Rail is fundamental to the UK, particularly in the economic and social benefits it provides. Passenger numbers are at a post-war high, having more than doubled since the mid-1990s to over 1.6 billion in 2015. Commuters rely on rail every day to get to work and people use it to get across the country for business and leisure.

There is no reason why the railway can't have the same stimulating effect on the UK economy in the coming decades. To achieve this, it is absolutely essential that the rail is run efficiently and safely and facilitates crucial connectivity to regional economies as well as national networks.

Safety on the railway has improved dramatically since the horrendous Ladbroke Grove and Hatfield tragedies and, for the ninth year in a row, there have been no passenger or workforce fatalities in train accidents. Rail continues to be the safest form of land transport in the UK. Nevertheless, vigilance is required.

What remains a great concern, however, is that the cost of rail tickets is the highest in Europe and has risen twice as fast as weekly earnings in recent years. The situation is unlikely to improve, with regulated rail fares in England and Wales set to rise by nearly 2% next year. The high fares persist in spite of the £4.8bn government subsidy that is still being fed into the railway.

Additionally, the UK lags considerably behind continental Europe, with the efficiency gap between the UK and our continental comparators estimated to be as high as 40%. The Government conceded in its own command paper that the railways are "unacceptably inefficient".
Many other aspects of the sector's performance are causing concern. The overall passenger rail performance and punctuality measure is the lowest since the mid-2000s and passenger satisfaction is down.

So where do we go from here? How do we improve performance across the network for the benefit of passengers and the broader economy?

In short, there is no quick fix. Following privatisation in the early 1990s, the UK developed a fragmented network structure made up of many stakeholders which has arguably produced a less cohesive sector.

The Transport Select Committee is currently completing a series of five interconnected inquiries into the future of rail. The aim is to take a sectoral approach to dissect the railway from its ownership and governance to the way in which infrastructure is being improved and managed, and most importantly, how the passenger is experiencing the railway.

The committee is nearing completion of two of these inquiries. The rail technology inquiry scrutinised plans for deploying new digital technologies and how technology could improve timetable planning by bringing in real-time traffic management. The passenger experience inquiry examined progress in achieving key priorities for passengers, particularly regarding the punctuality, reliability and facilities of trains, as well as the progress of smart-ticketing schemes.

The rail franchising inquiry is continuing and will have its second oral evidence session next month. As part of this, we are assessing the effectiveness of the Government in procuring passenger franchises and whether there is scope for further competition on the network.
The rail safety inquiry, launched earlier this month, is currently taking evidence and will examine the safety and security of the rail network as a whole. The final inquiry on the finance and governance of the network will determine whether the current governance structure can expedite a more coordinated and accountable functioning of the railway, and whether funding sources are sustainable to allow for the crucial capacity improvements necessary in coming years.

These inquiries are attempting to identify underlying problems on the network and put forward important recommendations for the Government on options to address current and future issues.
Ultimately improvements in the capacity, connectivity, affordability and reliability of the network have to be targeted to the benefit of the passenger. With the right policy and structures, the railway has the potential to promote economic prosperity.

Reference: Transport Times October 2016 Issue

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