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Baroness Randerson: This Government is derailing our railways

Baroness Randerson: This Government is derailing our railways
4 min read

Liberal Democrat Transport spokesperson Baroness Jenny Randerson writes ahead of her debate in the House of Lords on 'Measures to improve the reliability of railway services'.

Our railways are under severe pressure. 

There has been enormous change on our rail system in the years since the introduction of franchises in the mid-1990s, when passenger numbers and revenue were falling. 

There has been a sharp upturn in the numbers travelling by rail, which have effectively doubled. We have the most rapidly expanding railways in the world, while elsewhere in Europe railways are in decline.

Too frequently trains are desperately overcrowded – a victim of their own success. This discourages passengers and reduces punctuality. Many of our existing lines are full and there are simply no more slots available. 

Not only that, but with the increased pressure passenger satisfaction is falling, down to 81% last autumn and especially among commuters. 

The official stats underestimate the problems of punctuality and reliability. The headline measures of passenger satisfaction and performance used by the rail industry do not reflect real life experience. For instance a long distance train can arrive almost 10 minutes late and still not be considered to be delayed, so definitions of “on time” are very generous. 

Next January, passengers who are already under strain because wages have not kept pace with rising inflation, will face above inflation fare rises. They will pay more for services they like less. The government should step in – as they have done year after year for the fuel duty escalator – and freeze rail fares this year, while the system is reformed.

Modernisation of the ticketing system was promised, but very little progress has so far been made with electronic and smart ticketing. Until we enable passengers to swap seamlessly from rail to bus we are not going to revolutionise public attitudes. 

A network built in the 19th century and neglected and partially dismantled in the latter half of the 20th century is now creaking at the seams. It needs modernisation, much better maintenance and expansion. All this affects reliability and punctuality – down from 91% to 89% in the last 4 years. And the government is not proving good at tackling any of those factors. 

The current ticketing process, a relic of the past and desperately in need of simplification, is an unfriendly – frankly ridiculous – system, all the more unacceptable because it is about the most expensive in Europe.

We need more consumer-friendly franchises, more emphasis on things that passengers value most highly, including Wi-Fi. Devolution seems to be popular at the Department for Transport and in Network Rail. The Liberal Democrats strongly support that, but for the concept to be meaningful, local authorities should be able to bid for franchises designed around the needs of their citizens and the local economy. If Transport for London can do it, why not Manchester or Birmingham? 

The government’s approach to electrification is confused and incoherent. Cardiff to Swansea, Oxenholme to Windermere and Midland Mainline are all cancelled. I agree, National Rail has to dramatically improve its performance, but instead of taking action to deal with that the government seems to have just given them less to do. 

Despite recent promises of increased government funds and private investment, there is still a funding shortfall at the end of this Control Period. The industry needs an end to the feast and famine approach to investment cycles with more certainty and a loner term view. Without this our overstretched rail infrastructure will fail increasingly frequently.

In the economic uncertainty we now face as a country, the railways are a core part of joining up our country once again. So we need massive investment, particularly in the parts of the country that have been neglected for too long. Unfortunately this government appears too short sighted to do it.

Baroness Randerson is the Liberal Democrat Transport Spokesperson and a former Parliamentary Under-Secretary in the Wales Office.

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