Are we on track for a Beeching part 2?

Linda J. Dodson

The thorny issue of funding remains, however. Stations could beef up their retail offering to help pay their way, Shirley suggests. But the likelihood is that fares would have to rise to pay for the shortfall, further discouraging commuters from returning. Harry Fone, of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, says: “We don’t want to return to the likes of a state-owned British Rail. Overall privatisation has been a boon to the nation as passenger numbers have soared and taxpayer support has declined.”

Fone suggests more open-access rail lines could provide better value for the taxpayer. Under this model, train operators compete to win passengers on the same stretch of track: for example, Hull Trains and Grand Central both operate on the East Coast Line.

Open-access operators have yet to be convinced, however. Just last week Grand Central scrapped plans to run a service on the West Coast main line, a network that before the crisis was charging passengers almost £400 to get from Manchester to London.

Rail services have now returned to 90pc of their former level, although passenger groups point out capacity lags this on some routes. Outright closure of lines remains the nuclear option. “I don’t think a Beeching-style cutting of services is the right answer; in fact I think it would be a failure,” says one rail industry executive. “There are harder, but bigger opportunities to drive down the cost.” 

One train operating company has drawn up its own suggestions to the Government on the future running of the railway: this would include a more “commercial timetable” that could adapt to changes in demand quickly, instead of taking 50 weeks to plan, as with the new timetable of May 2019, which was notoriously botched. An improved “customer focus” would mean a massive simplification of fares and removal of duplication, and more digital sales of tickets. Changes to jobs, and the inevitable showdown with unions, would be sure to follow. 

The Government’s own green agenda, including decarbonisation, could play into the railway’s hands. “You have to make assumptions about the future price of transport,” says Prof Nash. “The DfT has been assuming that motoring costs and air fares will go down and rail fares will go up.” This needs reviewing, he suggests; and it could pave the way for more radical solutions. “If you are pushing charges for the use of roads, there’s the possibility of making a surplus on roads and putting it into rail.” This would reverse a trend for falling motoring costs and rising rail fares, but might not be a vote winner.

There are other funding models too. Rail lines can boost property prices; Crossrail was part funded by an extra business rate supplement. 

Keith Williams, in his comments to the transport select committee last year, indicated his preference for a “guiding mind” that could end much of the fragmentation on the railway. This so-called “Fat Controller” would be accountable for the track, station and services. “It’s super important and would make an enormous difference to the effectiveness of the railway – if we have the right people in place to lead it,” says an industry executive who complains of the massive “over-specification” of contracts and the multiple parties involved that are like “stray cats”. “Infrastructure, rolling stock and services are so interdependent you need one mind ruling them all,” agrees Nash.

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