Simon Nixon

Bring back Beeching

Simon Nixon says that we must build more motorways – and scrap railway lines

Text settings

Simon Nixon says that we must build more motorways – and scrap railway lines

Perhaps the most important discovery I have made over the last few years is that the way to stay sane in Britain is never to use public transport. The Department of Health tells us to eat five portions of fruit a day and to give up booze and fags. But what it dare not tell us is that the best way to reduce the risk of a heart attack and a host of other stress-related ailments is never to use the bus, Tube or train when you can drive a car or ride a bicycle instead.

I've been thinking a lot about this in the weeks since my fiancée and I found ourselves – for reasons we're still arguing over – facing the wrong way down one of the approach roads to the M11. Shaken but otherwise unhurt, we were able to get ourselves to Stansted to catch our flight. But the Saab was not so lucky. It never went anywhere again. Since then, we've been forced to rely on the train.

Somewhere along the line, the idea seems to have taken hold that the railways are a national treasure that we must preserve whatever the cost. But what a cost! Network Rail has just demanded a subsidy of £27 billion to see it through to 2006 (that is £11 billion more than even its predecessor, Railtrack, was demanding before the government forced it into administration). Meanwhile, the train-operating companies will this year receive a further £1.3 billion of subsidies. Together, these subsidies add up to more than £100 a year for every man, woman and child in the country.

And who benefits from this extraordinary largesse? Clearly not your average taxpayer, since you need to be a Russian oligarch to travel by train. I've just been looking up tickets to Edinburgh for later this month. British Airways had flights for £38 return, easyJet flights started at £46 return. But the cheapest that GNER could offer was a 'budget return' for £72, leaving at 7 a.m. One first-class ticket option cost more than £500. I blush to think what services GNER could be offering that might tempt people to spend that kind of money on a train ticket.

Beyond the commuter networks, it is clear that the railways no longer exist to provide affordable travel for the masses but are designed to convey pampered salarymen to their business meetings. Despite these sky-high fares and vast dollops of public money, the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) admits that the reliability of the network is getting worse. Punctuality is down to 77 per cent compared with 91 per cent before the Hatfield crash. But on the basis of my sample of about a dozen journeys in recent weeks, the situation is far worse than this. I calculate that precisely 0 per cent of trains arrive on time and only about one in six arrive less than 20 minutes late.

Clearly, we need a radical rethink of our attitude to the railways. The last time we had such a debate was 40 years ago, when Richard Beeching recommended the closure of 5,000 miles of track and 2,363 stations. Since then, successive governments have meddled with the structure of the industry, but the size and shape of the network have been left virtually unchanged. Not a single track or station has been closed since privatisation, nor have any new ones opened. The country can no longer afford woolly-minded sentimentality. What we need now is a new Dr Beeching.

The best option would be to free the rail industry from the government interference that has plagued it for more than 100 years. The failure of privatisation was that there was too much intervention, not too little. The government intervened continually – to insist on the separation of track and services, to set limits as to how far fares could rise, to rule out line closures. The latest reorganisation has merely made the situation worse, with SRA chairman Richard Bowker acting as a kind of hyperactive fat controller personally intervening to set every single train-time in the country.

Let's get rid of the subsidies and instead let the rail companies merge, own track, set their own prices, run the services they want and close lines that are uneconomic. The SRA reckons that the London commuter network, a few metropolitan networks and the inter-city network can survive without subsidies, but some regional networks, such as those in Scotland and Wales, would be forced to close. This might upset politicians, but it doesn't bother the industry. 'We have no particular hang-ups about a big railway or a small railway,' says George Muir, director-general of the Association of Train Operating Companies. 'While we are wholly willing to run some services on lesser used lines, this is a question of what the country is willing to pay for.'

Besides, if local authorities think it is worth keeping uneconomic lines open rather than replacing them with buses, they could take them over themselves. Independent Passenger Transport Executives (PTEs) have been operating local train services in several large cities since the 1960s. Indeed, the local PTE has just taken over the Arriva trains franchise in Merseyside. Similarly, local residents in the Yorkshire Dales have just reopened a 12-mile stretch of track that had been closed for 53 years.

An industry freed from the obligation to run uneconomic lines might be tempted to invest in a new generation of train lines designed to meet 21st- rather than 19th-century needs – just as it has done with the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. Professor Roderick Smith, a rail expert at Imperial College, London, has long advocated new high-speed train lines similar to France's TGV running on dedicated tracks from London to Bristol, Manchester and Leeds. He reckons these lines would cost in the order of £36 billion – a sum unthinkable given the current structure of the industry.

Cutting subsidies to rail will free up billions of pounds for investment where it is clearly most wanted: on the roads. Congestion on the roads costs Britain an estimated £10 billion a year in lost business. The £60 billion railway investment programme announced under the government's ten-year transport plan would reduce road congestion by a mere 1 per cent, says John Dawson of the AA. Yet a small programme of road improvements targeting a few key bottlenecks could reduce inter-urban road congestion by 13 per cent. 'Pound for pound, road improvements are in the order of 100 times more efficient in reducing road congestion than the rail programme.'

More to the point, investing more in the roads might actually make them safer. Certainly, it will do far more to save lives than the government's demented pursuit of a 100 per cent accident-free railway – which itself has done so much to bring the network to its knees.