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Keep on track to avoid a rail mess

Renewed government emphasis on trains as a solution to the UK's transport problems is not only welcome but also absolutely vital, argues NCE editor Antony Oliver.
At last some serious and long-awaited talk about expanding the UK's rail network. It's about time too.
I'm a big fan of train journeys - as I've said before, being able to relax, work or chat while the landscape rushes makes train travel the only sensible way to travel inter-city.
But I'm an even bigger fan of predictable train journeys that deliver you where you want to be at the time you want to be there. And while the effort put in and focus by Network Rail on good engineering over the last half decade has made this more likely, I fear that passenger demand will soon start to eat into performance.
As Network Rail chief executive Iain Coucher pointed out this week, the growth in passengers and services on the UK rail network means that unless we start to plan and construct new today "by 2025 many lines will be full up".
We cannot allow that to happen. In short if we are really intent on cutting road congestion by levering more people out of their cars; and if we are really intent on reducing the environmental impact of short haul aircraft trips then we simply have to get on with boosting capacity on the railways.
The fact that the government appears to have gone lukewarm over high speed rail is baffling but even without high speed routes there remains a compelling case for increasing the UK's standard rail network capacity.
But government has agreed that encouraging train use is a good thing. Logic suggests that it should plan and invest now in the infrastructure needed to provide the travel choice that will continue to encourage new users onto the railway - the infrastructure to provide the capacity to meet this future demand.
Of course critics of rail complain about the huge amounts of public cash already be pumped into the network. They argue that because of this subsidy it is already an expensive and inefficient way to get around.
And for all the celebration of Network Rail successes over record safety, record punctuality and record numbers using the system, it is clear that there is still a long way to go before it meets its goal of being described as truly "world class".
The Rail Regulator agrees and has set some pretty tough "but achievable" targets for the next five years including the need to boost efficiency by a further 21% - 8% more than Network Rail was angling for.
And it has called for yet more improvement in punctuality - and crucially a big reduction in the number of trains cancelled or significantly late. On-going problem areas such as the West Coast Route must also be tackled.
Never-the-less we appear to be going in the right direction and government must be prepared to back this success story. Network Rail's consultation is to be welcomed - making public cash available to support any recommendations is vital.

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