April 25, 2002

The Central Railway

Patrick Crozier | Best of Transport Blog | Rail Economics

Imagine, if you will, an entirely new railway starting at Liverpool and calling at Manchester, Sheffield, Leicester and the West of London before travelling through the Channel Tunnel on its way to Northern France.

Imagine it being fully electrified and capable of taking fully-laden lorry trailers (something that no UK railway can currently do.)

Imagine this railway taking 3 million lorry journeys off the roads every year.

Imagine reasonably generous compensation being made to those affected and imagine the whole line being built in the private sector without a penny of government subsidy.

Too good to be true? Not if the Central Railway has anything to do with it.

The Central Railway was set up in the early 1990s to make this dream a reality. Its directors believe that there is a potentially huge market for its services and that it will make a handsome return to its shareholders. In doing so, it would take huge numbers of lorries off our roads, make trade with the Continent faster and cheaper and go a long way to meeting the Government's freight on rail targets. It would also provide additional passenger transport capacity on parts of its route as well as electrifying part of the diesel-only Chiltern line North West of London.

This project comes as close as anything on the railways to the libertarian ideal. So why hasn't it been built yet?

Two words: the State. New railways need parliamentary approval. They need it in order to slice through the UK's convoluted planning system and to secure the compulsory purchase of land along the route. An attempt was made to gain approval in 1996 but foundered when it failed to get Government time and was "talked out" by backbenchers. Now, six years later Central Railway is gearing up for another bite at the cherry. One can only hope it succeeds.

If it does succeed (and that's a big "if"), that will mean it has taken the thick end of 10 years to get approval for one railway. In the 1840s (if my memory serves me correctly) hundreds of railway bills were pushed through parliament. In a brief whirlwind of activity the foundations were laid for the best railway anywhere in the world. It's not as if it can't be done, so why the delay?

Part of the reason stems from the vast increase in the amount of (usually bad, usually unnecessary) legislation that the Government lays before Parliament. Getting time for bills like Central Railway's is no laughing matter. But there is another factor here: the Government's own involvement in the railways.

In the 1840s, the Government couldn't care less. "You want a bill? Fine, here's the approval. But if you go bust that's your neck on the block." But here and now in the noughties, Governments do care. They have ministries, regulations, European regulations, subsidies and strategic authorities. They are up to their necks in railways and the voters know it. If things go wrong it is the government that gets the blame. If the Central Railway were to go bust it could become the government's problem. They might have to pay for it to be completed just like they are having to with the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. Not a happy prospect.

So, the government is undertaking its own assessment of Central Railway's viability. The fools. Don't they realise that this makes their position a whole load worse? Don't they realise that if they give their imprimatur to the project and it fails they'll be under even more pressure to bail it out?

It's not just the viability issue that is holding things up. The Government has targets for rail freight. It wants an 80% increase by 2010. But Central Railway, by taking such a huge amount of freight off the roads affects this target. Now, it would seem that this is all to the good. Surely, if someone is offering to help you out and it's not going to cost you a penny you should take them up? But it is not that simple. If the Central Railway succeeds, it would go a long way to showing that government intervention and "strategic" thinking aren't necessary. People would start to wonder if we really need all those Ministry of Transport civil servants. It could be P45s all round. Expect some tortured arguments as bureaucrats find ever more esoteric ways of hanging on to their jobs.

Update 30/08/04

The Central Railway's application for government support was turned down on 25 March 2004

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