What's the future for rail travellers?

The state of the rail network has leapt to the top of the political agenda, with the aftermath of the Hatfield disaster, rail strikes, and the crisis at Railtrack.

The state of the rail network has leapt to the top of the political agenda, with the aftermath of the Hatfield disaster, rail strikes, and the crisis at Railtrack. On the day that a report about the future of the network is published, PAUL GEATER looks at what it will mean for passengers in East Anglia.

THE Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) today published its plan for an industry that seems to have been in crisis for ever.

It proposes spending £33 billion on the network over the next ten years in an attempt to see the number of passengers increase by 50 per cent.

And while it claims to be a national plan, there is a clear emphasis on one area of the country.

The SRA plan includes:

A focusing of investment on London and south-east England routes on which 70% of all passenger journeys are made;

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1,700 new train coaches on these busy south-east England routes by 2004;

£370 million of improvements at 1,000 stations by 2004 as part of a £700 million programme involving track and signalling schemes at 100 locations by 2007;

£430 million (up from the originally-planned £105 million) for local rail schemes;

Measures to combat overcrowding on London routes and a fresh look at the fares structure;

Combining existing franchises to ease congestion at main London stations – for instance the merging of the Anglia, Great Eastern, and West Anglia franchises running into Liverpool Street;

Moves to improve train staff training through a national rail academy, better project planning and better information about the state of rail infrastructure;

Almost all new projects are to be financed by public-private partnerships – a move which is regarded with scepticism in the City of London after Railtrack went into Receivership.

Strategic Rail Authority chairman Richard Bowker accepted that the industry and governments had failed passengers over the last 40 years.

"Customer satisfaction is at an all-time low. Something has to be done,' he said.

"This strategic plan marks a line in the sand. It is the point at which we say enough is enough and begin the journey to deliver a railway fit for the 21st century and one in which we can be truly proud.'

In East Anglia, the train operating companies know that there will be a single franchise created when current deals end in two years' time.

But it's not clear whether the passengers will notice much difference.

Both First, which owns Great Eastern, and Anglia Railways are expected to bid for the franchise – along with other major companies like National Express, Arriva, and Govia.

The smart money, however, is on First winning – they are a strong national company with businesses across the world. Great Eastern has been reasonably reliable since privatisation in 1997.

Anglia has been much more innovative – with new services giving direct trains to London from places like Bury St. Edmunds and Lowestoft – but its parent company, GB Railways, doesn't have the financial strength of its competitors.

However Anglia has launched a pre-emptive strike with its announcement last week that it will be applying to the SRA for money to buy new trains to transform its local services between Ipswich and Cambridge, Ipswich and Peterborough and on Norfolk lines.

It's looking for big money for these services which would start in October 2003, just six months before its franchise ends.

It would ensure that the SRA would have to insist these services were maintained by the new Greater Anglia franchise holder.

That puts the SRA into a difficult position – if it turns down the application, it is failing to support service improvements, if it approves it then it is committing future operators to long-term support.

But some believe Anglia has nothing to lose by putting the SRA in a difficult position!

The SRA has also said it wants to see new trains introduced on the main line between Norwich and London to coincide with the start of the new franchise.

These would replace the current "InterCity" fleet using locomotives built in the mid-1960s and carriages built in the late 1970s.

Introducing these new trains by 2004 is totally unrealistic – industry insiders privately believe that the earliest we could see a new fleet of trains on the line is 2006.

Trains are not like cars – you cannot buy them "off the peg" from train dealerships.

They have to be ordered from manufacturers – usually after long negotiations.

They then have to be built and tested before they can be introduced into service – and electric trains take much more testing than diesels because of the advanced electronics they use.

That's why there were stories in the press two years ago about hundreds of new electric units sitting in sidings while commuters had to put up with old carriages.

The fact that the SRA has mentioned ordering new trains so soon has, however, convinced local rail operators that it will be looking to announce the winner of the new franchise sooner rather than later.

When the franchises were first announced back in 1996, the announcement was made just weeks before they took over.

This time, we could know who will run the services before the end of this year – 18 months before they take over – to give the new operator time to get its new trains ordered.

The SRA is committing extra money to make travel easier or more comfortable – but whenever money is spent on rail there is a temptation to make the grand gesture rather than getting the basics right.

That was the problem with Railtrack in the years leading up to the Hatfield disaster.

The company was keen to promote its plans for the future with rail re-openings and rebuilding crumbling stations – while the fact that the tracks themselves were cracking up was apparently ignored.

Stewart Francis, chairman of the Rail Passengers Council, said: "This plan represents the first glimmer of hope for leading this industry out of the very long tunnel of poor performance and failed promises where it has remained stuck for so long.

"While the news of increased funding is extremely welcome, there are still real worries that the industry remains underfunded.'

He said that only if the Government committed itself to very high levels of on-going funding would any of the private sector investment be attracted.

In East Anglia there are still basic "grass-root" problems that need to be addressed – the lack of a half-mile long loop on the East Suffolk line prevents more trains being run between Ipswich and Lowestoft.