Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

All aboard for BOOM town

Extended train operating franchises could help boost rail infrastructure investment

Last Thursday's Rail Summit in London started with a snipe at the industry from Prime Minister Tony Blair: 'delighted to see you all here today, on time', and ended with John Prescott heralding 'the new spirit of co-operation' and 'a move away from blame culture'.

Media predictions of a bust-up between Prescott and the industry turned out to be wide of the mark. Afterwards, private comments from rail operators and Railtrack suggested there was a genuine positive feeling generated on the day.

Sure, the industry got the usual rap on the knuckles over deteriorating punctuality. Prescott also repeated that he would not let multi-million pound companies push him around and promised a year-on-year improvement in rail services.

'I will never be held to ransom by anyone in the industry who says 'accept my terms or no new investment'.' he said.

But this time Blair also held out an olive branch to the industry by offering to re-open negotiations over franchise lengths - something rail operators have long argued for.

Many claim that with only a few years left on their franchises it has not been commercially viable to make long term investments in rolling stock and infrastructure. But the prospect of longer franchises means that some main line operators will look to strike up revenue sharing deals with Railtrack to allow them to finance rolling stock and infrastructure upgrades together.

To win favour with Prescott train operators will have to stick to tough ground rules and make the Government 'an offer it can't refuse'.

Proposals will be judged against criteria which include the franchisee's past record, the extent of accelerated investment, commitment to higher punctuality standards, integration with other transport modes and value to the taxpayer. Perhaps the most important criterion, however, is the extent to which operators consult and listen to their passengers on standards and service.

Enlightened operators already realise that passengers measure the train against their cars. To bring about a real rail renaissance, trains will have to compete with the comfort of a wrap-around, heated leather seat.

It is this 'comfort factor' which will drive the real investment in rail infrastructure. Only so much extra passenger capacity can be created by extending station platforms for longer trains.

Prescott's test for franchise extension proposals is vital for the future of rail investment. If the Government is as committed to improving the railways as Tony Blair's presence at the summit indicated, it will mean removing pinch points, improving track quality and upgrading signalling.

In short, the start of the rail boom at last.

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Please note comments made online may also be published in the print edition of New Civil Engineer. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.