Lead item on BBC Breakfast the other morning was on the West Coast Main Line (WCML). Apparently it’s running out of capacity so either they’ll have to put up the fares or introduce a fancy “computer-controlled” signalling system or the government will have to build a new, high-speed line.
(Is the comma in the right place in that last sentence? It should mean a new line that is high-speed and not a new high-speed line to go with all the other ones. Oh well, never mind).
The reporter also added that because the government was going to introduce toll charges on the motorways that would push lots of people onto the railways - again putting pressure on capacity. He went on to suggest that what this showed was that the government needed to plan more and it would, therefore, be a good thing when the 30-year plan turned up.
A little later they interviewed Ian Coucher, a high-up at Network Rail. He thought that all the problems could be solved with a few extra carriages and, anyway, the whole kerfuffle only served to underline that the whole thing was a “success story”.
Oh God. Where does one start?
Well, let’s try the low-hanging fruit.
“Computer-controlled" signalling. I am far from an expert on the subject but I am pretty sure that the signallers have already managed to get the odd ZX80 into their control centres over the last 30 years or so. What the reporter was probably referring to was “moving block” signalling which is an incredibly snazzy way of putting more trains through the same amount of track. Snazzy, that is, in all respects apart from actually working. It was tried on the Jubilee Line Extension. It didn’t work. It was thought about for the WCML. The bosses thought it was spiffing. The boffins took one look at it and realised it was a non-starter. The company (Railtrack) went bust.
“Success story”. The upgrade to the WCML (WCRM as it was known) cost, according to the report, £8.6bn (a sum that looks suspiciously low but I won’t bother arguing about on this occasion). The tax payer will be lucky if he ever sees more than a few pennies of that. So, it’s made a loss. Losses are bad.
Now for the hard bit. First of all, what’s wrong with it:
- The assumption that higher road prices will mean fewer people using the roads. It could easily mean more.
- The assumption that if people do flee the roads they will end up on the railways. They could equally easily end up at home. Or on marble-smooth super-highways built by road entrepreneurs.
- The assumption that the state is any good at planning.
- The assumption that if the ultimate answer is a new railway that the state should fund the construction. It shouldn’t.
And here’s how things should work:
- The roads should be privately owned. So should the railways.
- Polluters should compensate their victims. Railways just as much as roads.
- If there is enough of a market then road builders will build more. Ditto railways.
- In the resulting market roads may still dominate but or it may be that railways become viable (though I doubt this) or neither. Staying at home could well prove the best option.
But how would these new roads or railways be built?
- Well, you’d have to abolish planning laws. Not that that would be any big deal. The lack of compulsory purchase might be an obstacle but I don’t think so.
Why do you doubt that rail would become viable?
- I just don’t think that pollution charges for global warming would ever be that high. And even if they were high, rail would be punished along with everyone else. While on a per passenger per mile basis, trains may produce less greenhouse gases, a lot of energy will have gone into the creation of the infrastructure.