‘Say what you like about Mussolini but at least the trains ran on time’ was a sardonic remark, popular in the days of British Rail. The monolithic network that ran the tracks, trains and everything else in the 1970s had a reputation for inefficiency and grim catering that was grist to the mill for the dark sarcasm and self loathing that characterised Britain when a French politician coined the phrase ‘sick man of Europe’.
Non-PC jokes may be frowned upon in the 21st Century, but discontent with the rail network lingers on. Few sectors attract as much public criticism as the railways. Train companies, notably South Western, are whipping boys for the public, politicians and media. Cancelled trips and overcrowded carriages create visual manna for those who see the privatised railways as symbolic of how corporations exploit consumers. And voters’ memories are getting shorter, allowing calls for re-nationalisation to be taken seriously.
Poor communication has always been an issue, from keeping passengers in the dark about a delay to ignoring the complaints of customers. Soon, there will be a new PR challenge, as Network Rail plans to ramp up the redevelopment of property it owns across the country.
In one sense, the UK’s rail system has been a victim of its own success, an idea that Stuart Kirkwood, Development Director of Network Rail, pitched to an audience of real estate professionals recently. The number of rail journeys has doubled since privatisation, creating enormous strain on a largely Victorian infrastructure.
What did the Victorians ever do for us? Network Rail maintains 40,000 bridges and viaducts, most of which were built in the days of Empire. The rail industry is wrestling with legacy issues. For example, the train companies – not Network Rail – are responsible for operating most regional stations yet their relatively short-term contracts are incompatible with the long-term investment those stations require.
What is required is more Victorian-style ambition with visionary projects that can be built into a narrative of regeneration. And the impetus to make that happen may come from a surprising source, the UK’s housing shortage.
Network Rail has always redeveloped land, but it now has a statutory duty to free up more of the real estate it owns and deliver thousands of homes by 2020. Until now, the government has been generous in its support of Network Rail, Stuart Kirkwood says, conscious of the enormous strain on the network and the benefits of shifting people off the roads. But economic constraints are likely to choke future funding. So here is an elegant solution – fill Network Rail’s coffers by selling off land and make a substantial contribution to building more homes, a key government target, while you’re at it.
And here comes the vision. Not content with selling off redundant land or entering into joint ventures with developers, Stuart Kirkwood and colleagues are thinking big. What about all the space above the network? They are considering building on rafts above tracks and on top of stations. This would be challenging enough, but it would have to be done without disrupting the network.
Even with the more routine redevelopment projects envisaged by the network, good communications will be important to bring local people around and to win planning consent. The stakes will be higher when ideas about futuristic towns on train tracks or redevelopment of beloved Victorian stations move closer to reality.
Though he no doubt travels first class and free, Stuart Kirkwood at least glimpses the pain of fellow travellers as he commutes daily on the West Coast Mainline, the busiest in Europe. The stakes are high, but the opportunities are exciting. Network Rail will need Victorian-style chutzpah and engineering prowess to make these things happen. It will also need to cast off the rail sector’s historic attitude to public relations, work on developing empathy, walk the talk and communicate brilliantly.