The great railway robbery…again ?

Dr Beeching stands with the report into railway cuts.

Dr Beeching stands with the report into railway cuts.

Virgin Trains now operate the West Coast Mainline

Virgin Trains now operate the West Coast Mainline

Today is a historic day in British transport news. Not necessarily the best news, but on this day, 27th March, fifty years ago, Dr Richard Beeching announced huge cuts to the railway industry. The decisions included closing 5,000 miles worth of track, thousands of railway stations and cutting thousands of jobs. The reason? Because Beeching saw the rival, the car, bring passenger numbers down on the railways. Today, the need for railways is greater than ever before.

Many people see Beeching as a man who destroyed the rail industry in Britain. The operator of the railways, British Rail, were losing millions of pounds per year. In fact, it was previous governments who made the decisions to go ahead with the cuts. Beeching was simply the man behind the report into the government changes, not the man who wanted them to happen. Whether he pushed for the cuts to happens remains a matter of divisions.

Fifty years on and there plans to reinstate lines which were closed, including links between Edinburgh and the Scottish borders, Cambridge and Oxford, and at last the Portishead railway may reopen to serve the people of Portishead.

Today, however, the railway industry is a very different place. British Rail, the previously public owned operator, is no more and many of the main routes in the UK are privatised. These include the West Coast Mainline running between London and Glasgow now operated by Virgin. Whilst the route remains mainly untouched from the previous nationalisation eras, the railway network is now a huge multi billion pound business with private companies competing for the most money. Increases in rail fares are a reflection on the system which requires constant upgrades and maintainance work, whilst delays and disruption also cost millions to the operators and Network Rail every year.

Soon, however, the East Coast Mainline, currently in public ownership, is to be privatised, as the franchise goes up for sale. Previous operators, National Express, couldn’t afford to run the line and by 2009, one of the main intercity routes was back in the public hands. Now it seems that companies including Virgin and First Group will be competing for the right to run the Eastern railway route. A similar previous bidding process was run in 2012 for the West Coast Mainline – After 15 years operating the route, Virgin Trains were denied the rights to run the line after the government approved a £5.5bn payment bid from First Group, who stated they would carry more passengers than the previous operators. Soon after that announcement, the government backtracked, blaming financial mistakes. The bid was cancelled due to an investigation. Virgin Trains were reawarded the line to run until 2017 when another bidding process can take place. The selling of the East Coast Mainline will take place before 2015, along with fifteen other franchises, wiping out the remaining publicly owned rail networks.

And with that, the government also announced at the beginning of 2013 that the plan for a new high-speed rail link between London and the North will go ahead. It will take at least another twenty years to see the completion of the new line which will see travelling times between Manchester and London reduced by a half. The government says this will be good for business’, employment and tourism. However, many of the concerns of the people I have spoken to is that there is no need for a new line which will destroy local eco-systems. Many travellers want to see an investment in new rolling stock for the mainly short, urban journeys which are undertaken everyday. Passengers say that want value for money, something they believe they are not receiving.

Whilst the railway may be an expensive mode of transport, the need for the train is greater than ever. Many lines and rolling stock are well over capacity, resulting in what some customers describe as a poor experience. The fact is that train fares will continue to rise, next year being the eleventh on a row, and whilst some believe this is unfair, the government, train operators and Network Rail claim the money is spent on ensuring the railways are safe and properly maintained. Many more increases in fares will be needed for a real revolution of British railways.