Shadow Strategic Rail Authority
The 2nd UK Local Authority Chairs of Transport Conference, - Sir Alastair Morton
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The 2nd UK Local Authority Chairs of Transport Conference, - Sir Alastair Morton
type Speech (full)
note Speech on 23 September 1999 by sSRA chairman Sir Alastair Morton
To"The 2nd UK Local Authority Chairs of Transport" Conference, London
23 September 1999
Title of Session: "The Contribution of Rail to Local Transport Solutions"
In my recent experience the first questions are "What is the SSRA? When will
it cease to be a shadow? And what are you able to do meanwhile?"
The first thing I must say is British pragmatism is alive and well, to the despair
of the media. The SRA will have "shadow" status for another year in
legislative sense, but in the pragmatic and practical world it is up and running,
alive and well.
OPRAF and the non-residuary activities of the BRB already function as one
SSRA, with a single strategy committee, with the franchising director as chief
executive and this part-time chap as an active chairman. Either he or I have
enough powers to serve our needs and we are establishing that we have
So what are our priorities - what point of departure do we have? I would start
with something many in the media and some consumer representatives do
not like to realise.
The increase in volume has put a tired, creaking and heavily loaded structure
under even greater strain. They have been starved of investment for decades.
The slightest obstruction and they back up with unpleasant consequences.
And by the way, it's becoming the same already for our 20-40 year-old
motorways, prematurely aged and crumbling for lack of funding. And how
about the chaos in air services over NW Europe when a power source at
Heathrow failed for an hour or so earlier in the summer.
In rail, take inter-city lateness. I do not believe the punctuality record of air
services to Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow compares with the much
maligned rail services I know that Paris by air is worse than Paris by rail. I
know that Frankfurt from London by air is worse than, say, Doncaster or
Bristol by rail from London, though journey time is similar. But we meekly
accept the air delays, whereas we howl with rage and batter on doors if we.get similar treatment from rail services, despite the best efforts of operators
and Railtrack. The causes, consequences and sentiments are different for
Whatever their faults, I believe our railways have moved into a growth
scenario above and beyond the economic cycle. In the past few years'
domestic rail passenger kilometres have risen over 20% and freight
something not dissimilar or better. Twelve hundred extra trains are running
every day. This is not failure, neither at the policy nor the practical level. The
issues are quality and capacity, and the heavier the pressure on tired
infrastructure and equipment the greater the difficulty in providing quality and
But having said that in defence of private sector railway operations, let me say
that I have noted instances of slovenly service - dirty trains, bad food, no
information, unweeded track in stations, and so on. I have not seen and I will
not see any excuse for that, but I do not think it is the norm. The effort to
improve is widely visible, but needs to make a lot more progress.
In sum, I have found in my first six months a battered, historically under-funded,
previously non-growth system now in the process - the painful
process - of transforming itself into a modernised, growth oriented, larger and
better system. The trouble is that it takes time. The correct question is:
- Is it happening?
- Why hasn't it happened already?
Rail privatisation in 1994 was aiming to get public use of a static maintainable
network at lower cost to the user, coupled with steadily reducing cost to the
public purse by reduction in subsidy and increase in premiums payable. A
good objective in some respects, destined to be as good for taxpayer Paul as
it would be bad for rail user Peter after the then government left office.
Perhaps I exaggerate! But I am sure the present government intends to
contribute more to railway development than steadily to tax away the
increases in revenue earned by progressive eliminations of all subsidies.
Now let me try to relate my view of railways post-privatisation to the rail
transport problems facing national and local government.
It is not to be done overnight but a marriage of sorts has developed between
career railwaymen, bus and coach operators, entrepreneurs, investors and
local authorities. The marriage is as full of stress, aches and pains as most
marriages - but the worth of our railway culture has been accepted after some
trials by newcomers, while many - I hope a large majority - of railwaymen have absorbed some, I hope much, of the modern service culture being
delivered into our railways by franchisees, managers and specialist staff. I can
think of cases where the local authority has displayed reluctance to accept
talk of a modern service culture.
It would have been a miracle if so hasty a fragmentation, misnamed
privatisation, had turned out to be perfectly structured and efficient. It has not,
though (once again) it is not all bad, and it is what we now have. So how do
we optimise what we have?
First we must realise this is important. I think we do. About a decade ago
Britain semi-consciously decided to stop building major trunk roads. Around
1990 the Tory government proclaimed "the largest road building programme
since the Romans." Two very British things stopped that idea within a year -
first the common sense of the public, who understood we did not have the
space, at least south of the M62, nor even the already blighted land, to build
more major roads over any distance. And second the Treasury, which as
always had no intention of payi ng for serious investment in the infrastructure
in our society. So Mrs. Thatcher's Roman outburst died in a year, and we
began then, early in the '90s, the relentless build up of pressure of traffic that
has become today's unbearable summer congestion that finally, at last,
makes us cry "Something must be done!" It amazes me that the media portray
it as something new.
We cannot have a return to massive road building, whatever John Redwood
now says. The same objections; space, blight and the Treasury will prevent it.
The answer is not manic road building. The answer is better use of roads,
better management of traffic and better integration of public and private
transport. Worn-out roads needs better maintenance and better reconstruction
if road transport is to carry more every year, as it must, whatever the growth
Our railways must take a much larger share of the growth, and no longer lose
share in what exists. The numbers of people and tons of freight on our
railways must grow - rapidly. We may now be well over 20% ahead of
privatisation levels but we have to aim above 50% well within the next
Everything I say applies also to freight. Local authorities, I would urge you,
should lay a lot of stress on the contribution of rail freight t Local Transport
Plans. Freight strategies and intermodal transfer points have to be identified
and rail partnerships developed between local authorities and logistics
operators. The SRA will want to know of difficulties placed in the way of that
process. Co-operative land use planning may make vital differences to the
future relief of your areas and facilitate planning decisions.
Let me turn now to the TOC franchises in the new decade. Within the past ten
days I have made public how the SSRA plans to negotiate the replacement of.up to 18 shorter passenger franchises - those which now have less than five
years to run.
Our thesis is to avoid the "lame duck" situation, when a TOC is sitting out the
last few years on a declining subsidy or rising premium. The TOC no longer
has either the time to earn a return on further investment or, in a number of
cases, the cash to invest after paying for the track access and the leased
rolling stock imposed on it at privatisation while receiving less and less state funding.
Railhub Archive ::: 1999-09-23 SRA-001