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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Housecleaning on the country's railways

The realisation that Britain's train network doesn't work for the travelling public nor for taxpayers has finally dawned on Westminster. Announcement this week of a review

of the entire structure concocted by the Major Government in its dying days in a rush to UK rail privatisation is long overdue. The current Government cannot accept without severe damage to its role of governance the daily headlines blasting operators, Network Rail and the Department for Transport for the dangerous overcrowding and frequent inhumane conditions on peak hour commuting train services - nor the lamentable service cancellations by train operators.

If Northern Rail / Arriva Rail North delivered the services (and fares) offered to the British travelling public - in Germany where it's parent company is based (Deutsche Bahn / DB) that it is the accepted norm here - the Bundestag would be in special session. German commuters (and indeed most rail commuters on the continent) simply would not put up with the fare levels and quality of service now prevalent in the UK. Social and political activism is far more extreme in Germany, France and Italy.

There are thankfully some exceptions to this abysmal story of systemic failure of Britain's railway network where profit rules and foreign ownership abounds. Chiltern Trains (German managed) being a positive example of modernising hands on operation with high capacity new rolling stock and minimal service disruption on busy lines feeding into London and Birmingham. Virgin's rail service makes every effort to provide quality travel on its cross country and west coast mainline trains. Scotland and Northern Ireland offer competent rail operation and freedom to implement strategic development without the deadening hand of Westminster bureaucrats (sorry civil servants). Wales (with its own Government) is about to benefit from a massive makeover of the busiest concentration of rail services along its southern urban corridor linking Newport Cardiff and Swansea together with vital urban centres in the 'Valleys'.

Andy Burnham is taking the lead on behalf of the northwest in gaining government and public attention on the lamentable condition of rail service delivery around Manchester and Liverpool and broadly across the north of England - notwithstanding infusions of capital on electrification and HS2 forward planning. Cross country links running through the Pennines connecting urban centres from the Wirral to the Humber now require transport czars free from constraints of Westminster departmental mindset. Blackpool's council had to fight off contractor plans to demolish the solitary platform canopy still in place at Blackpool North during last winter's electification work. The station structure itself is a frozen in time monument to the 1930s and should have a blue plaque affixed to it as a heritage building. The opportunity for the station to be totally remodelled and turned into a brilliant inviting gateway for rail travellers to the Fylde coast did not even make it onto Network Rail's to do book. Instead its slash and burn focus meant heritage signal boxes along the line were arbritarily and brutally demolished, with no thought to their conservation value as local landmarks. Not to mention the severing of the track connection at Poulton for the dormant Fleetwood line which is now subject of concerted efforts to secure its reopening in some form.

Amid the brutal truths of Brexit coming home to roost when dealing with the European Union - our so called 'European partners' - Britain's privately operated national rail network is falling apart at the seams, despite infusion of huge amounts of public money into both infrastructure and franchised rail operators. The system now delivers profits to private companies (many foreign owned or controlled) on the back of daily agony and frustration of hundreds of thousands of citizens struggling to get to and from work - many in disgraceful travelling conditions. If as much thought went into delivering adequate capacity with longer trains for predictable peak hour services, as the level of investment in providing shopping centres and coffee outlets on remodelled station real estate - priorities might have been kept in balance (just). If the overheated incessant clawing demands of London's interests for further billions of infrastructural transport investment were kept in check - this might just allow the rest of the country to catch its breath and enter the 21st Century with adequate transport delivery. If the Government of the day had the sense to retain a single national railway network under competent and modernising ownership, fully freed from the inept practises and whims of politicians as well as parasitical profit driven consultancies, and private sector corporates with overseas stakeholders - then the UK might just have been able to ensure its vital railway infrastructure still served communities large and small, geographically disadvantaged as well as Home Counties centric. But then pigs might fly. Below : A Preston Station familiar in 2018.

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