25 March 2013

Mr. Brown goes off to town on the 08.21*

One of the reasons I was motivated to go out canvassing in the snow last weekend – not something I thought I’d be writing in late March – is the manner in which the Government has got stuck into overhauling the rail network. There’s been a lot of noise about the 50th anniversary of the Beeching Axe, which fell hardest under the Wilson Labour government. But what many of those nostalgic about the steam era haven’t realised is the extent of the work taking place on the railways today.

Of course, there are the high profile schemes – Crossrail and HS2 – both of which will address badly needed capacity shortages, as anyone travelling into Euston or on the Central Line during the rush hour will tell you. But there are other smaller projects that will bring dramatic improvements to local services, such as Manchester’s Ordsall Chord (which the Economist wrote up glowingly last week).

Manchester's Ordsall Chord project (Network Rail)
At the bottom end of the glamour spectrum, hundreds of platforms all around the country are being extended so that longer trains can be run – even the sleepy branch line down to my Dad’s place in the High Weald is having money spent on it. Stations are being reopened, while signalling is being modernised. And not a moment too soon: passenger use of the railways has doubled in the last two decades and continues to grow, despite the economic downturn.

More fundamentally, we’ve taken action to bring the railways into the 21st century. Despite howls of protest from Labour, the Department for Transport has pressed on with reducing the number of ticket offices, which add to the already high overheads of running trains. Besides, when did you last actually buy a ticket over the counter? Most people purchase their tickets online or at ticket machines. Labour has consistently argued the union’s line that this is a precursor to closing railway lines, when the exact opposite is true – by bringing down operating costs we are putting our railways on a sounder footing and ensuring their long term viability.

Around the country, Conservative councils and MPs are lobbying central government for better railway services, and earlier this month Brighton’s Conservative MPs and councillors came out strongly for the innovative Brighton Mainline 2 scheme that will drive economic growth and transform travel across Sussex and Kent.

The next general election will see commuters look at their wallets and purses and ask what we’ve done for them. We’ve got a great story to tell motorists on freezing fuel duty, but railway season ticket costs have increased, albeit at a lower rate than was planned by Labour. Our action to keep these down is a good thing, given that the average commuter spends a fifth of their pre-tax salary on train travel.

So it is essential that we make sure the hard pressed commuter knows about our track record: we are an unashamedly pro-railways government that has balanced protecting people’s pockets with investing in the service they rely on every day.

Or in other words, we need to talk less about the exciting headline projects, and concentrate on telling the people who pour through London Bridge each weekday about the hundreds of small improvements we’re getting done to make sure they can get a seat on a train that’ll run on time.

* Bonus points if you realise that this is a line from the Dad's Army theme tune, rather than an oblique reference to G. Brown, formerly of 10 Downing Street.

First published by Egremont on March 25th, 2013