£1.8bn is the most recent figure for central Government spending on the railways. With the next Conservative government likely to have this as the very maximum they’d be willing to spend – and even that is a stretch – the future has not been this bleak for Britain’s rail infrastructure for generations.
In Scotland, the link to Glasgow Airport has been sacrificed by the SNP administration attempting to balance its books; Manchester’s Metrolink extension to its Airport is likely to be mothballed too. London’s Crossrail is a reality likely to remain, not least because of the Olympic Games in 2012, with the rest of the nation sitting on so many promises and long-ago given up dreams of being linked to the rail network.
I am not against long-term projects such as the High Speed project linking the North of England with London so quickly office workers could commute on a daily basis without losing sleep. Nor am I naive enough to demand massive expansion without consequence, although how many people must realise that the Beeching Axe did for economic and environmental policy long before many of today’s MPs were born? How different this country would be – how closer to our climate change ambitions – had the crisscross of railway lines slaughtered by Beeching allowed to remain.
Nationalisation is not the answer to our railway woes. Those on the Left who demand the return to public ownership are blinded by ideology. Some private companies may have bailed out – Connex, National Express – but the expansion of the network which has occurred, improvements to stations which has happened, the vast improvement in punctuality across all regions, would be unthinkable and grossly over-costed in the hands of Government. I do not want to return to slow, shoddy, slam-door British Rail trains, even though my daily commute often means 1980s Merseyrail brain-shakers into Bamber Bridge. Northern Rail is showing far more ambition than Regional Railways ever did.
The £1bn kitty for railways after 2010 will not be used with much abandon. It will have to be centred on what will be guaranteed to return the best value. But the railways are showing all the signs of short-term politics from both Labour and Conservative governments. Neither saw beyond each election day in terms of ambition for the rail network. More stations, more lines – all needed for the long-term good in addition to such massive projects as “High Speed II”.
We show the scars on our little island of our reliance on road expansion at the expense of railway funding. The future should have started years ago on making the trains run on time. From 2010 the question of railway investment may be too important to avoid.