MP WRITES: Wrong track for trains

Now that the kids are off school, you might be keeping them occupied by having day trips to parts of the North or elsewhere.

You might be considering a shopping trip to Newcastle or the Metro Centre.

You might be considering having a day in York or going even further afield to London.

When it is done right, the best way to travel is always by rail. I travel by train to London to get from my home in Hartlepool to Parliament every week and I am always taken aback by the spectacular countryside, particularly the northern stretch of the journey between our own town and York.

However, I would imagine that you probably wouldn’t like to see a doubling of rail fares. But that is what the Government is proposing through a consultation of northern rail franchises.

The Government asks whether there is a tradeoff between increasing rail fares and improving services, particularly whether there should be a doubling of prices to match other parts of the country to improve the frequency, capacity and quality of rail services in the North.

I have mentioned in Parliament the importance of a good, coordinated transport system, which includes the rail network, and I have debated in the House of Commons the poor quality of the rolling stock of the old Pacer trains which travel to and from Hartlepool and Newcastle.

It is clear that passengers and potential passengers should have something better.

I also live in the real world. You can’t have something for nothing. There must be a relationship between the price you pay and the service you get.

But, when it comes to the rail network, there must also be a recognition that it is a public good – that economic activity increases, prosperity widens and society as a whole benefits when a country has a modern, reliable and frequent railway network.

I don’t think anybody is calling for a return to British Rail.

When I was growing up, British Rail was the butt of many comedians’ jokes, especially the sandwiches they used to serve.

Having said that, if you travel up to Newcastle from Hartlepool today, you can’t get even get a sandwich.

It is equally clear that rail privatisation hasn’t worked in the interests of passengers either – like many things that were taken out of the state’s ownership in the 1980s and 1990s, we haven’t seen better quality and price competition.

We’ve seen growing domination from a small number of companies that take more and more profit at the expense of future investment and against the interests of their customers.

The East Coast Main Line is a good case in point. It is now run by the state, after the private company that used to have the franchise said it couldn’t run it anymore. It does so at a profit, providing a benefit to taxpayers.

If this can be done on one railway, surely it can be extended to others? We have, however, a ludicrous situation where a foreign state-owned organisation can bid to run our railways, but British public organisations – run for the express benefit of the British taxpayer – cannot.

Indeed, German and French-owned state companies run about 65 per cent of all this country’s railways. That cannot be seen as fair or even logical.

Allowing the public sector to bid for rail franchises in an environment which gives control of transport infrastructure to local areas much surely help square the circle between better rail services and the avoidance of spiraling train fares.

A better, more reliable train service would probably increase passenger numbers, meaning that fares could be restrained and profits provided back to the taxpayer. I think that’s the journey for the railways we need to embark upon.