The UK election campaign will soon be over and the future of rail in the UK will be a lot more certain. Postal votes are already being sent and by the end of 6 May, Britain may have a new government, and with it a host of new policies on rail transport. The country's traditional two-horse race between Labour (who have held power since 1997) and the Conservatives has been challenged for the first time since the early 20th century.
The results of May's election could have far-reaching ramifications for Britain's rail lines and services. No matter which party – if any – wins a majority in the next parliament, there are a number of key rail issues under debate. Here, we highlight the three main parties' rail transport pledges.
UK investment in rail
The current Labour Government has set in motion a number of large-scale rail projects in the UK. Crossrail, track upgrades on the West Coast mainline and the Liverpool-Manchester rail link, the Thameslink programme as well as high-speed rail have all been big ticket items for the present government.
Hence, commitment to rail investment is the fundamental issue underlying all future rail development in Britain. All three parties agree that significant sums of money will be required to develop British rail transport, but their policies vary both in strength of commitment and methods of raising funds.
The Conservatives have been criticised for their reluctance to make solid guarantees on rail funding. In an interview with Railnews, Conservative transport secretary Theresa Villiers said: "The real issue is affordability, and I cannot give a guarantee that any scheme would go ahead under a Conservative Government until we have applied the value-for-money test."
The Tories have emphasised the importance of private sector participation in rail transport to reduce government spending. In their manifesto, the party pledged to offer longer, more flexible franchises to encourage private sector investment.
The party also wants to issue a moratorium on building on disused rail lines to keep them available for reopening. The Uckfield-Lewes line in East Sussex and Yorkshire's Harrogate-Ripon-Northallerton route are prime candidates for reopening in the future.
The Liberal Democrats plan to fund rail improvements across the country by slashing the major roads budget by as much as 90% and pumping nearly £3.5bn into a new Rail Expansion Fund, according to the party's transport spokesman Norman Baker. To further improve funding, the party has also proposed the establishment of a UK Infrastructure Bank, which will invest returns into infrastructure projects. The Lib Dems claim that this money would lead to the biggest rail expansion since the industrial revolution, reopening disused lines and improving existing services.
Gordon Brown and Labour have made strong commitments to continue funding the rail projects they have already begun. The party's manifesto stresses the need to invest in "modern, high-capacity and low-carbon transport infrastructure".
Contrary to the Conservatives, the Labour manifesto makes special mention that a future Labour Government would welcome rail franchise bids from not-for-profit, mutual or co-operative franchise groups, and attempt to remove what it describes as "unfair barriers" that prevent such bids.
Future rail projects in the UK
Government-led rail initiatives are a boon for the rail transport industry. They provide long-term business for rail contractors during construction and, when completed, improve services and passenger satisfaction. Rail passenger numbers have increased by more than 40% in the last ten years and rail development has a significant role to play in Britain's economic recovery.
Undoubtedly, the largest future railway plan under discussion during the election is the construction of a high-speed rail line (capable of speeds of up to 250mph) connecting the UK's north and south, and eventually tracing a route from London to Edinburgh and Glasgow.
In March, the Labour Government unveiled its plans for the first stage of this line running from London to Birmingham in the West Midlands.
Both the Conservative and Lib Dem parties support the concept of a south-north high-speed line in principle, but with an extensive period of public consultation before a proposed 2017 start date, there's still a chance that one of the most ambitious rail projects in British history could be scuppered before it has begun.
Construction work on Crossrail, the new line that will connect the west and east of London to the city centre, began in 2010. Contracts were awarded for the second phase of enabling works in March and construction has begun at Tottenham Court Road station. Proponents of the scheme, due for completion in 2017, believe that the line will add 10% to London's current public transport capacity and play an important role in the capital's economic growth.
All three main parties have expressed support for the project, but while Labour and the Liberal Democrats have committed to maintain the current level of funding, the Conservatives have offered no such guarantees. Justine Greening, Conservative shadow minister for London, admitted this month that scrapping Crossrail would be a possibility under a Conservative Government. Labour Transport Secretary Lord Adonis attacked Conservative support for Crossrail as "weasel words".
Last summer, the Labour Government unveiled an ambitious £1bn plan to electrify the Great Western mainline from London to Swansea in South Wales, one of the UK's busiest lines. Gordon Brown and Labour are clearly keen to complete the project (which they pledged to do within eight years), and the Liberal Democrats have expressed a wish to electrify Britain's entire rail network by 2040. The Conservatives expressed support for the project in their manifesto, but again would not guarantee a green light without a rigorous spending review.
Improving passenger satisfaction
The effect of all these projects and investment schemes will be limited, however, if potential passengers are put off rail travel by high ticket prices, delays and overcrowding. All parties have set out broad strategies to improve the experiences of passengers to encourage travellers off the roads and onto Britain's rail platforms.
The Conservative manifesto focuses on reforming and empowering the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) to serve as a "powerful passenger champion". Although protecting the interests of railway users is already listed as one of the ORR's duties, it's clear that the Conservatives will try to prioritise this element of the regulator's mandate. The manifesto also mentions making Network Rail, the owner and operator of Britain's rail network, more accountable to passengers.
Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have promised measures to provide ticket savings for passengers. The Lib Dems have gone a step further by outlining a policy to force Network Rail to refund a third of passengers' rail fares if they have to take a rail replacement bus service.
The party also plans to make Network Rail more transparent by bringing it under the Freedom of Information Act, allowing members of the public to request information from the organisation.
With the competing assurances of three campaigning parties ringing in our ears, it is easy to forget that the UK budget has been stretched to snapping point by the global recession. While parties are promising improvements in every corner of British society, the fact remains that no treasury – Labour, Conservative or Lib Dem – can afford to please everyone.
It remains to be seen whether the government elected on 6 May is willing, or even able, to honour the heady campaign promises made to the passengers and operators of Britain's rail network.