Tomorrow is the age of the train

Wednesday 3rd January 2018




Iain Stewart, a member of the Transport Select Committee and Conservative MP for Milton Keynes South

We are on the threshold of a revolution in transport. The ways in which we and our goods move around will change sooner than we appreciate.

Particularly on our roads, the evolution of “connected and autonomous” and electric vehicles will alter traditional patterns of motor transport. For shorter journeys, for example, we are likely to replace private car journeys with a hired autonomous vehicle. That is likely to diminish private car ownership and replace it with MAAS (mobility as a service), in which we purchase a smart package of transport access for all modes.

For longer distance journeys, we shall see vehicles connected in autonomous “road trains” on our motorways and dual carriageways; good for increasing efficient use of road capacity, reducing pollution and liberating the driver’s time.

We may not know the exact timescale for the widespread introduction of this new technology but it is coming and industry is already gearing up for it. A recent report by the Transport Systems Catapult – based in my home patch of Milton Keynes – anticipates a £900 billion global market for Intelligent Mobility by 2025, just seven years from now.

Will such profound change eclipse traditional modes such as the train? Far from it. Because I believe that our rail system will be an ever more important backbone of our national transport infrastructure.

I do not expect new road technology to trump the strategic advantages of our railways. Trains will generally still be able to move more people at a quicker speed than by road, whether that is journeys between our major towns and cities or the mass and rapid transport of passengers to and from major urban centres.

Look at our rail network today and you will see massive investment in it: brand new lines such as Crossrail and East-West Rail; rebuilding of major stations such as Kings Cross, Nottingham, Manchester Victoria, Reading and London Bridge; and new rolling stock which will deliver faster journey times. Plus, of course, HS2 will massively shrink the economic geography of the country and release much needed capacity on classic routes.

That investment is not misplaced. Rail use – which has doubled in the last 20 years – will continue to grow. Whilst there is understandable concern about the cost of rail tickets, a look behind the newspaper headlines tells a different story. Yes, the peak-time “walk up” fares are pricey. Most passengers, however, can book excellent value tickets.

Only 3 per cent of ticket revenue is profit for the operators. The rest goes into paying the salaries of the operators, the running costs of the trains, maintaining the safety of the network (we have the safest railway in Europe) and, crucially, investing in future improvements.

Technology change will affect the railways as much as the roads. Digitalised signalling will allow a much more efficient use of the network, while automation will increasingly allow staff to be redeployed to better assist passengers. That technology should be embraced, not resisted as the trade unions are doing in their politically motivated industrial action.

Nationalisation is another red herring. The enormous investment in our railways over the last two decades would not have happened in anything like the scale we have seen under the old BR model.

There is, however, much more for the rail industry to do. They have to better communicate the relevance of the railways and the improvements that are coming. The recent “Partnership for Britain’s Prosperity” campaign from the Rail Delivery Group is a good first step but more is needed. Evolution of the franchising structure will also be required and the industry needs to be more pro-active in thinking of itself as part of the new MAAS concept, rather than a stand-alone transport mode.

They also need to improve the customer experience offer from more visible staff assistance to having more comfortable and less densely packed seating arrangements on long-distance trains (and, my own bug-bear, aligning properly seats and windows!).

Addressing those issues will help secure the railways position as the spine of our transport network. When I was growing up, there was an advertising campaign entitled “This is the Age of the Train”, with the new Inter-City 125s an attention catching heralding of a new era in rail travel. Tomorrow, too, will be the Age of the Train.

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