Same old trains... same old schedules... same old track
Rail travellers west of Bristol will be both astounded and disappointed by the report of the evidence of Sir David Higgins to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Transport (WMN Oct 16). Disappointed, because it gives no hope of a way forward for the development of rail in the South West for the next decade; astounded because it reveals in top management either a shocking ignorance of the railway network hereabouts or, even worse, an apparent attempt to generate enough smoke and mirrors to make it difficult for us yokels beyond the Clifton Suspension Bridge to grasp the truth.
Sir David is on the point of moving from a position as head of Network Rail to that of boss of HS2. Dealing with the latter first, it is ridiculous to suppose that a railway line running on a tangent no nearer at any point than 150 miles from Exeter can be of much immediate value to our region. Why travel to the new West London terminal to catch HS2 when one can already take a conventional service straight to Birmingham in two and a half hours – about the same time as the journey to London alone would take?
More important and alarming, however, are Sir David's comments on Network Rail's current activities in the South West. He seems perfectly content with the present position. 'Bristol', he says, 'is... where we stop, when we carve off South West England at that point'. But he does not seem to realise that his present company is responsible for 220 miles of double-track main line south west from that city to Penzance, with busy interurban networks around Taunton, Exeter and Torbay. Yes, there is a £9 billion national rail investment plan on the non-HS2 network – but there are no discernible Network Rail plans for a single pound of this money to be spent on improvements west of Bristol, either in the period to 2018 or in the five years thereafter. We cannot be placated by the promise of 'major investment ploughed into Bristol' as this will be taking place as far away from us as London is, say, from Coventry or Leicester.
As present Department for Transport and National Rail plans stand, the year 2023 will see South West peninsula passengers still travelling in the same trains on the same schedules with the same track and signalling infrastructure as they did in 1986 – on a museum railway which also happens to be our main link to the capital. The only difference will be that these resources will be getting on for half a century old, and hence more likely to fail in spite of valiant efforts to upgrade them. Never mind that our region has achieved some of the highest traffic growth in the country; a complete lack of development since 1986 means the system is reaching capacity and thus vulnerable to breakdown.
Perhaps we have been too patient, and not complained enough. But our railways are now a generation behind those of the rest of the country and it is time they were at least brought up to parity before the UK begins the next giant leap forward that is HS2.