Wednesday, 18 April 2007

Credit where credit is due

It is easy for politicians to promise anything when they’re in opposition; the hard part comes when – or if – they have to deliver. To be fair, David Cameron has so far, not promised an awful lot, preferring instead to bide his time until nearer the election. A closer examination of the party’s communications does reveal, however, certain key themes emerging: one of them being an increasing concern about the state of Britain’s railways.

Earlier this week, Mr Cameron said that tackling overcrowding on trains would be an urgent priority for any future Conservative administration. There will be no new government money but, rather, Mr Cameron said funding should come from the premium payments the government will receive from the new franchises like First Great Western’s.

His idea makes sense. First Great Western is due to pay well in excess of £1bn in premium payments to the government over the next ten years: more than enough money to replace FGW’s entire HST fleet with cash to spare. Indeed, if only a tenth of this payment were invested in new rolling stock, it would add significant capacity to the Greater Western network.

Quite what the government actually has the £1bn earmarked for is anyone’s guess; it probably hasn’t calculated it’s budgets that far ahead. But releasing only a tenth of the premium for future investment in rolling stock – which will in turn most likely lead to higher levels of demand and a subsequent increase in income to the fare box – isn’t beyond the realms of economic feasibility. It’s fair too. The money paid in premium can come from only one place: First Great Western’s passengers. In effect, it is an indirect tax levied on everyone who travels on Great Western’s trains. Well, passengers want part of this ‘tax’ to be used for their benefit – not just for the benefit of other franchises or for the myriad of hapless schemes the Department for Transport happens to have in mind.

The response from the government was typically dismissive. Commenting on the Tory proposals, the Transport Minister, Stephen Ladyman, said: “you can't just wave a magic wand and make these things happen instantly. It takes time.” Yes it does. But your government has had ten years, Mr Ladyman – ten years and precious little to show for it.

So, while Mr Cameron’s latest rail idea remains sketchy – and is not a panacea as it fails to deal with any of the structural problems of rail – it is, undoubtedly, a step in the right direction.

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