Your railways are so quaint

This, you may be pleased to learn, is the last of my blogs in which I critique the statement made to the House of Commons by Justine Greening MP, Secretary of State for Transport, on Tuesday 10th January 2012 (transcript).

When she was within half-a-yard of commending her statement to the House, Ms Greening played the ace that she had been concealing up her sleeve:

“Half a century on again, we now need to do for our Victorian railway what previous generations did for our road network.”

The use of the adjective “Victorian” probably came out of a brainstorming session held for Department for Transport high-flyers. The word is obviously meant to convey connotations of an old-fashioned railway that has seen better days. It was used to this effect in High Speed Rail: Investing in Britain’s Future (here), in paragraph 1.2 on page 27, for example:

“Our current railway system dates back to the Victorian era and will not be sufficient to keep Britain competitive in the twenty-first century.”

Now, I really object to this calculated slur on our InterCity service. Whilst it is undoubtedly true that the trackway beds of our railway network were laid down by our Victorian ancestors, the current railway and rolling stock are, by no means, a Victorian relic. It is only a few years since more than £8bn was spent on upgrading the West Coast Main Line (WCML) and this has delivered benefits in service reliability and passenger experience. It enabled Virgin Trains to introduce their “Virgin High Frequency” timetable in December 2008, improving journey times and increasing capacity substantially.

The Pendolino trains operated by Virgin Trains have a maximum operating speed of 200kph on the current WCML, but have the potential to run at 225kph if in-cab signalling were installed; the same is true for the Class 91 trains that operate on the East Coast Main Line (ECML), hence the train brand “InterCity 225”. Even at the current 200kph limit, these services meet the requirements of European Union Directive 96/48/EC Appendix 1 for existing railways, allowing them to be classified as “high speed”.

The Pendolino trains have been in operation for less than ten years and, accordingly, offer a modern travelling experience. Carriages are equipped with mains outlet sockets and WiFi access to allow business passengers to work efficiently during their journey.

Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group of companies, outlined his vision for the WCML in May 2009. He forecast, amongst other things, that a journey time between London and Birmingham of less than 60 minutes would be achievable and said that:

“With a £1bn investment we could, within 3 to 5 years, see our trains running at 140mph with reductions in journey times between London and all West Coast destinations.”

So far from being a relic of the Victorian era, the WCML supports a high speed train service of the 21st century that has benefited from a substantial recent investment programme and which continues to receive investment to improve its service level and capacity.

This ongoing InterCity investment programme has succeeded in producing steadily improving service performance and reliability, as witnessed by the improving satisfaction ratings reported in the twice-yearly National Passenger Survey by the rail watchdog Passenger Focus.

I hope that sets the record straight!

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