High speed trains? How about making the network we've got at the moment work...
Over the past fortnight, Network Rail's pie-in-the-sky dream has been back on the news agenda: high-speed rail.
Lots of whizzy pictures have been floated around of what these super-fast trains could look like as they nip up to Birmingham from London in less than an hour, and to Scotland in less than three hours.
It's all very nice to talk about - saving the planet, empowering the regions and so on - but there's as much chance of it happening within the next decade as there is of David Cameron and Gordon Brown working together to ensure that Prime Minister's Questiontime actually becomes a valuable part of the democratic process.
And nor should it happen. Because, as it stands, the various rail authorities aren't very good at managing the existing rail network.
It's the same Network Rail putting forward these plans which also presided, along with its previous incarnations, over the massive over-spend on the west coast mainline upgrade, which also, as it happens, ran massively late.
The same Network Rail which painted this image of hassle-free travel once the West Coast upgrade was completed but which still keeps shutting part of the network down on a Sunday.
The same Network Rail which is only just getting round to upgrading Euston station, the "gateway" to the West Coast route, after the work is supposed to be complete.
The same Network Rail which hasn't yet come up with a way of improving the east coast although, perhaps ironically, the east coast always seem to run more smoothly (and with more seats on each train).
The big announcement from Network Rail felt like nothing more than a Government body trying to justify its existance at a time when the Tories - who despite the big black hole where their polices should be - look likely to become the next party living at Number 10 and are making mutterings about a cull of such bodies as Network Rail.
At the same time, the Tories are mumbling about having to make cuts to national spending, so the chances of billions of pounds being spent on a slighter faster rail network seems slim at best.
But Theresa Villiers, the shadow transport secretary, doesn't appear to have picked up on that. Not only is she promising to fund it, should they come into power, she also plans to tweak it, adding Heathrow to the network and sending it to Leeds via Manchester, not Glasgow via Manchester.
So she too is engaging in a game of Fantasy Trainsets - at a time when you'd have thought the senior Conservatives would have been playing down spending commitments. Labour, while enthusiastic, has been quiet about how it could afford it.
Can any government really justify spending cuts in the NHS - or 0% growth in Gordon Brown speak - yet commit untold billions to a slightly faster rail network? A rail network which benefit a chosen few - those who seek to nip between a select number of cities only, and only those who can afford to.
If this high-speed network is built, what happens if you want to travel onward from one of the chosen city stops - for example to St Helens from Liverpool, or from Birmingham to Lichfield? Just because the train you start your journey on is a bit faster, doesn't mean you'll get to the desination faster - the train for the second leg of your journey will probably run at the same speed.
And given we're talking about just saving a few minutes on journeys, the odds are you'll probably end up on the same second train to your destination as you will do now if your regular "slow" Virgin train leaves at the same time.
Why are the Tories getting so excited about a high-speed rail network like this when all it will actually deliver is a two-tier service (or three tier if you determine the current network is a two-tier hotch-potch of speedy services and ramshackle trains out of cities to suburbs and rural areas).
And if this high-speed network was operating today, how would much of the Midlands access it? Given that we have a rail operator in the Midlands - London Midland - which relies on staff volunteering for Sunday duty to operate it services on a Sunday. And because none showed up today - perhaps because they've had their Sunday opt-in pay halved - then no trains now.
So on one side of the rail industry we have a quango dreaming big about the future while trying to cover its tracks (ho ho) for badly handling the west coast upgrade, while at the other end we have thousands of rail passengers without a Sunday service because the rail firm with their franchise (and £500k a day in subsidies via the Government) doesn't rota its staff to work Sundays.
A tale of two rail industries? Maybe. To me, it's proof that the powers that be would be better off making the current network work before even thinking about turning pie in the sky into anything more that a dream.
Listed below are links to blogs that reference this entry: High speed trains? How about making the network we've got at the moment work....
TrackBack URL for this entry: