Railway engineering costs have always been unavoidably heavy and sometimes perplexing, but in recent years they have burgeoned to the point of fantasy, and appear disreputably out of control. It is hard not to conclude the gravy train is crammed to capacity. Contrary to popular opinion, in its latter years BR secured good value for money - after a stately minuet. Knowing that funding requests would be reduced after prolonged ministry and treasury vetting, BR not infrequently adopted a modest degree of stealth in parallel, e.g., preparing track and signalling for higher speeds in the guise of updated maintenance while awaiting a green flag for East Coast Electrification, thus reducing the perceived project cost. A good way to squeeze juice from a parched lemon!
As set up Railtrack was formally barred from undertaking in-house engineering works. This meant exercising day to day supervision of the companies they retained to do the work for them, the vital need for which was under-appreciated. Costs soared to twice the BR figure - for less work to what proved unreliable standards. Network Rail's costs have leapt upwards again, not least because of the excessive impositions of H & S, far beyond what elsewhere is deemed acceptable. At the same time the 'blame culture' we are embracing and a too eager resort to litigation has hugely put up Operators' insurance costs, so railway companies will advisedly opt for ultra-caution to avoid exposure to the risk of personal manslaughter charges. The combined effect leaves little funding for major enhancements or extra capacity. You know, we bring much of this on ourselves.
Richard Bowker of the SRA has the vision and determination to put a strong case, and shares with Tom Winsor, the Rail Regulator, a firm grasp of economic reality, but is between a rock and a hard place. He acutely needs better performance from all parties and clear indicators of cost control before he can hope to prevail on Gordon Brown for improved funding. The latter will hardly support higher subsidies for failure, and may reflect aloud on the folly of pouring even more water into a leaking bucket.
One advantage of which more might be made by the railway is the 'turn up and go' facility. (One complaint about free bus travel for the elderly in the Highlands is that you cannot be sure of getting a seat on a coach when you wish to go or, rather worse, when you need to return. Only those pre-booking can feel sure.) You can book in advance for a train, ensuring a seat, but many passengers just turn up on the day, confident of access. It is rare for passengers to be turned away from a train - and where overcrowding becomes excessive and/or regular on certain workings operators will endeavour to add extra coaches/units, stock and staff availability permitting. [I believe this would happen more readily if our world was not run by accountants with defective vision and no souls! Too often the object seems to be to cram us in like sardines, instead of inviting us to relish long-distance comfort, and so-called restaurant cars fobbing us off with plastic meals like economy class on a cheap flight, even in the new and clearly very expensive trains. I consider the increasingly airline ambience insidious and malign. . . . Anyone agree? ]
At the same time it must be admitted that the railway - usually, though not always. Network Rail - does seem prone to a wayward capacity for shooting itself in the foot. The summer Heat Wave speed restrictions were clearly prudent for customer safety (widely, under the 'blame culture - see above), but has no-one now a responsibility for drawing up contingency schedules for use in such an emergency? (Not frequent but, like heavy snowfall, a forseeable risk surely.) And above all there is surely a prime duty at such times to keep customers informed!