WMN COMMENT: Growth in rail services will put West on the right track
The jokes about stale sandwiches in the buffet car, endless delays and cold, windswept stations endure. But despite the well-publicised shortcomings which still need to be addressed, rail travel has come a very long way since the darkest days of British Railways, pre-privatisation. Passenger numbers are soaring and there is little sign that growth in demand for train travel will slow down significantly into the future. That means investment needs to keep up.
Yesterday Network Rail set out proposals for the increasingly important local services that get commuters to their jobs, school children to their desks and families to their leisure destinations. The first thing that hits you about their report is the predictions for growth in passenger numbers. You then start to wonder if the service, already extremely fragile in some areas and vulnerable to problems caused by the weather and other pressures, is going to be able to meet that growing demand. In the Exeter district, for example – one of the boom areas of the Westcountry – peak rail passenger demand is predicted to grow by 41% in the years between 2008 and 2019. Off-peak demand is going to grow almost as fast, by some 37% over the same period – and could be even higher, especially the services to coastal resorts in the summer months.
There is no question that transporting more people by rail is good for combating road congestion and better for the environment. Good quality rail services are also popular with travellers and a huge boost to the South West economy – vital, in fact, for maintaining and improving growth in our region.
So more trains, to meet increasing demand from the residents of the new town at Cranbrook, for example, and to improve commuter services into an expanding Exeter and serve the holiday resorts around our coasts, are vital. More services are promised – but not on anything like the scale of rail expansion in some areas of the country. And it is one thing to read about extra services in a report projecting forward to the end of the decade; it is quite another to see the trains running. Rail passengers in the Westcountry need a commitment to see these service improvements come to fruition.
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There also needs to be investment in the lines. The impact of the catastrophic floods that affected services into and out of the Westcountry as well as travel within the region itself is still being felt. With fares continuing to rise above the rate of inflation passengers have a right to expect that some of the money they are having to spend to get from A to B is invested in making the service more robust, especially with more potentially damaging weather events likely in the future. No one can deny the progress that has been made on the railways in the past 50 years. We may lag behind many other European nations but things have definitely improved. There is a long way to go, but this is a positive move in the right direction.