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Thursday, May 23, 2024

The need for long-term planning

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When I wrote this column for RailStaff’s April issue, which seems like a long time ago now, I said that it was hard to believe that 7,000 people in the UK, and 85,000 worldwide, had died from COVID-19. At the time, I was appalled by the size of those numbers.

Today, the totals are 62,566 in the UK alone, almost as much as in the whole world back in April, and 1,570,000 worldwide – just more than the total number of infections in the UK.

If I was appalled then, I am speechless now.

The total UK deaths are the equivalent of the entire population of Taunton in Somerset. Slightly more than Runcorn in Cheshire, Wrexham in North Wales and Bangor in Northern Ireland.

Little wonder, then, that both the rail industry and the nation have been badly affected.

The UK Government and the devolved authorities have taken measures to protect jobs, save lives and keep things going. Trains were needed to move essential ‘key’ workers around the country, but the numbers travelling were under five per cent of what they had been. Franchise operators were government-funded, although they lost their franchises in the process, replaced by Emergency Measures Agreements. Open-access operators (Grand Central, Hull Trains, Eurostar) were left to fend for themselves.

Businesses could furlough staff, the bulk of their wages paid by the state. Small businesses received additional support, as did some large retailers, though many of the latter are now repaying that money after they declared increased profits.

Once lockdown finished, passenger numbers rose, but were still only around one-fifth of what they had been. Now, after lockdown 2 and with most of the country in Tier 3, numbers are down again.

And that creates several problems.

Once again, the government is having to pay billions to keep the trains running.  Once again, the open-access operators are being left to sink or swim – they are hoping to earn a small amount over Christmas.

And once again, people who are not fans of the railway are asking why, if passenger numbers are down, are we spending money on improving the railway?  Even worse, why are we building new ones, such as HS2? Much better that we spend the money on roads, buses, cycleways, feeding the poor, housing the homeless, subsidising health care, improving education, reversing global warming, maintaining the level of overseas aid, accepting illegal immigrants, expanding police forces, protecting nature, closing down raves and parties, preparing for Brexit and supporting the sinking pound.

Anything but spending money on railways that have almost no passengers.

How people forget. The railways we use today were built 150 years ago. The ones we build today will still be being used in 2170. 

The high number of passengers on Britain’s railways in 2019 was despite the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, 100 years earlier, which killed 228,000 people in the UK – three times the current COVID-19 numbers.

So, it is reasonable to think that, 100 years from now or less, even the railways we are currently planning will be bursting at the seams. Personally, I wouldn’t like to guess at what passenger numbers will be like in even five or 10 years’ time.

But I bet we will need all the railways we can get!

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