Tuesday, June 30, 2009

When You've Got Them By The TOCs

*Evidence of the stress engendered by moving house No.94; it even managed to stop me blogging about trains...*

For a railway-inclined politician it's often difficult to know who to hold in more contempt. On the one hand there's Network Rail, who I described at a recent scrutiny committee meeting as "the least imaginative, least ambitious organisation ever dreamt up by a group of human beings" (and that was the polite version). Then again, there's always the Department That Thinks Transport Is A Jolly Good Idea And Somebody Should Definitely Look At Doing Some (for whom Dudley Moore's phrase, "the Government's... what for want of a better word we'll call policy...", was invented)

And then there are the Train Operating Companies themselves, whose impact has been restricted to the occasional shiny new train or livery and a legacy of micromanaging the crap out of their cost base with little or no consideration for anything so mundane as quality of service. Now, however, there's welcome evidence that they've reached the limits of endless price-hiking and seen the light.

For while they may not be anything like as ambitious as our plans (still criminally unavailable on the party website), ATOC's report on line and station reopenings is a pretty decent start. It proposes seven new stations on existing lines and fourteen new lines (mostly short branches) with a total capital expenditure of around £500m. That alone puts it way ahead of Network Rail's Route Utilisation Strategies, which tend to focus on how to thrash the existing network to within an inch of its life. Perhaps more importantly, ATOC also appear to have realised that these decisions are about more than instant economics, relaxing their cost-benefit criteria to take regeneration benefits into account.

Then again, it's not as if the operating companies are planning to fork out any of their own cash, relying instead on future fare income and the public sector to deliver. That faith in government unfortunately also extends to the scope of the report which only considered England because the devolved administrations have developed strategies; that may well be true of Scotland, but the Welsh Assembly Government's rail strategy doesn't extend beyond "Look at the Ebbw Vale line, isn't it shiny!"

Still, it's a welcome policy shift from the organisation that holds the balance of power in the rail industry and if they decide for the first time in their lives to wield that power for something other than evil, that would be even more welcome.