Rail services in the South Downs
This week I attended a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Rail Group to discuss the Government’s Rail Review.
The Review was established to recommend the most appropriate organisational and commercial frameworks to deliver a “world-class” railway. Clearly our local rail service has a very long way to go before it becomes world class.
We may be past the serious disruption which occurred on Southern trains as a result of industrial action, and then on Thameslink trains as a result of botched timetable changes, but the service is still not good enough.
It is unreliable and many commuter trains are packed. Unsurprisingly, the recent National Rail Passenger Survey showed that overall satisfaction is falling.
The Review, which is chaired by a former Chief Executive of British Airways, will look at proposals to integrate track and operating companies more closely - a need exposed by the timetable chaos.
Many think that rail re-nationalisation is the answer. I disagree, not least because I am old enough to remember how awful British Rail was.
While the privately-owned train operating companies are blamed for any disruption, in fact well over half of delays are because of infrastructure problems. These are the responsibility of Network Rail, which is in public ownership.
The ownership and structure of the railway is important, but so is the level of investment in it.
In the 14 years since I was first elected as MP for Arundel & South Downs, the number of passengers on Southern’s routes have doubled. Enormous strain is being placed on very old and clearly inadequate infrastructure.
The £6 billion London Bridge improvements will help to tackle bottlenecks in central London, although ironically they caused major disruption while they were being completed. But there is still congestion at junctions in south London, and improving these will require substantial new investment.
Nearly £1.5 billion is being invested on renewal and refurbishment of lines in the South East over the five years to 2019. But with 510 million annual passenger journeys in this region, getting on for one in three in the whole country, a great deal more is needed to cope with the demand.
The Government is committed to an investment of £48 billion in the railways over the next five years, apart from HS2. We need to make the case for long overdue major rail upgrades in the South.