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Back on track?

Analysis - Can the Conservatives seriously build a way out of the rail congestion crisis?

DRAWING A line under botched rail privatisation will never be easy for the Conservatives, as their latest intervention last week shows (see News page 12).

There is no doubt that the Tories really are trying. They are now saying that rail must be at the heart of Conservative transport policy.

And the party that bled dry the nation's rail assets before privatising them in the early 1990s has now come back with a plan to expand the railways again.

But the plans outlined by shadow transport minister Stephen Hammond at the Rail 2007 - Developing our Rail Network conference in Birmingham last Thursday were light on detail. It is almost a year since shadow transport secretary Chris Grayling announced a review of the rail sector. But so far nothing apart from criticism of Labour policy has emerged.

Everyone agrees that demand for rail travel is increasing and the Tory approach to meeting this is, in part, to build more and faster lines. This perhaps explains its voiced support for high speed Maglev lines between Edinburgh and Glasgow and across the Pennines.

Hammond also believes that the Channel Tunnel Rail Link's (CTRL) Eurostar service should also be extended to Birmingham on a privately funded route, which would pay for itself after 17 years.

Building your way out of a rail congestion crisis sounds reasonable enough on the face of it. It would seem that the Conservatives are also keen to be seen as the commuter's friend at a time when much media attention is given to overcrowded and late-running services.

But questions must remain about Hammond's choice of major projects. The CTRL's commercial viability is still unproven: the route to St Pancras does not open until later this year. Lower than expected Eurostar passenger numbers brought the project to its knees in the late 1990s.

Plans to run an extended service on the West Coast Main Line were shelved soon after, partly because of concerns about passenger numbers and the ability of Eurostar trains to share track with West Coast Main Line services.

There is also a great deal of scepticism about the viability of Maglev, even in parts of the world where projects have got off the ground. With this in mind, it would be a brave Conservative transport secretary who decided to go ahead with one, let alone both, of the projects proposed by Hammond.

Thursday's pronouncements reinforce the Conservatives' commitment to rail, but also suggest that much thinking is still needed before a fully coherent policy emerges.

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