Trains: We’re Getting There
Many of you will remember the infamous British Rail slogan from the 1980s – ‘we’re getting there’. Even in professing some sort of modest aspiration, it had the unfortunate demerit of being complete tosh – which is why everyone laughed at it.
On the figures alone, BR was a complete disaster. From nationalisation in 1948 to privatization in 1997, passenger numbers fell through the floor and freight volumes through the basement. Less seen but worse still was the failure to invest in upgrading the network. That was not BR’s fault – it was the result of funding railway investment exclusively via the Treasury, who were not interested in trains and did not want to take a long-term view. Politics always came first: faced with choices between tax changes and providing money for new tracks, politicians of all stripes were tempted to take the most vote-friendly course. The result was a terrible inheritance of poor investment and a backlog of upgrades, one that was not addressed by Railtrack in the first years of privatization.
So British Rail was never ‘getting there’ – and was never going to get there so long as the Treasury decided how much money it got and BR did not need to listen too hard to the people it carried on its trains. Now, privatization has been no bed of roses: in a natural monopoly it’s hard to create true and immediate customer choice. Railtrack was not a success and franchising – when poorly designed – has done little to improve quality, as our experience of National Express on our own line has shown.
But overall, judged again by the figures alone, things really have improved: there are now more people travelling by train that at any time in almost a hundred years, following years of increases that began almost precisely at the point when the trains were privatized back in 1997. We have the safest large railway system in Europe and customer satisfaction is increasing. Most importantly, we are beginning to work through that backlog with the biggest investment programme since the railways were built – a programme that is only made possible because it is a partnership between the public and private sectors.
What does that mean for us? Well, we’ve had a particularly hard time of it, as under BR and before, governments largely forgot about East Anglia – a situation that was not sorted out in the thirteen years of Labour government. Why? Well – politics (too few Labour marginals) and, to be blunt, a view that East Anglia was some sleepy backwater that still infected the Department of Transport when I started lobbying them not long after my election in 2010.
The turnaround, however, has been dramatic. Through persistent and co-ordinated lobbying, I and my Norwich colleague Chloë Smith have pushed our train links to the top of the rail agenda – securing £1.3 billion investment for the period until 2019 and a commitment last year to continue that investment for the five years following, to 2024. The result, which we will see revealed bit by bit, will be a modern railway, with faster journey times, in new trains, reaching destinations on time and with greater frequency.
Frankly, it is something we could have had already had we not missed out on sixty years of investment during the BR years and missed decade at the beginning of this century – which is why it is going to take six or seven years to put it all right. But with the temporary refurbishment of rolling stock revealed last week and track being replaced and improved this very night, we have now started to put that right. This time, we really are getting there.