Friday, 12 February 2016

No way to run railways

GOLDEN AGE: Coaches waiting to meet tourists arriving at Windermere railway station for the start of their holidays. The original station was rebuilt to make room for a store development

BRITAIN’S railway operators are braced to see how they will fare in the government’s spending cuts but one leading expert feels the industry will come out of better than many others.

Christian Wolmar spoke on Britain’s Railways in Transition Again at the autumn meeting of the Cumbrian Railways Association at the Burnside Hotel in Bowness.

As the country’s best-known transport correspondent he has had the opportunity to quiz and ruffle the feathers of many ministers charged with improving railway services.

He said: “The railways are a fantastic way to travel and we are absolutely at a most fascinating time.”

He was a fierce opponent of the 1990s Conservative-led railway privatisation which set up a company to run the railway infrastructure and a series of companies to run line operating franchises.

He said: “They wanted to open access and competition. That was the ideology behind it.”

In his opinion, all it created was a series of regional monopolies.

He said: “They knew it was flawed but they pushed it through.”

When Labour’s Tony Blair came to office political ideology played no part in government policy.

He said: “When Labour got into power there was never a suggestion that they were going to re-nationalise the railways.”

Praise-worthy aims, such as reducing the level of public subsidy and reducing government interference, all failed.

He said: “If I had to sum up the Labour years it was 13 years of muddle.”

Even the 2007 White Paper looking ahead 30 years was flawed – talking of fuel cell technology when the rest of the railway world was pushing for more electrification of lines.

And Mr Wolmar feels the planned north-south high speed line will be an expensive white elephant.

However, he feels the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review will find it difficult to shave much off railway spending as cash is already committed in a 2009 to 2014 plan.

He said: “The investment plan is pretty safe.

“Many more road schemes were cut than rail schemes.”

Branch lines, such as that to Windermere, would be looked at when the franchise came up for renewal at the end of 2012 but he felt it would survive.

Closing it would save a couple of hundred thousand a year but would be opposed.

He said: “You would get an enormous outcry.

“I think that the network is pretty safe.”


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