SUCCESSOR to our annual Rail Business Report, this inaugural edition of Rail Investment is designed to meet the need for an authoritative publication covering trends in railway spending.

As in Rail Business Report, we include the World Bank's railway performance database which offers a valuable picture of the world's railways from which it is possible to determine significant trends. The accompanying text by the Bank's Railway Adviser Lou Thompson advances the thesis that investment spend is generally better managed by the private sector, because those responsible bear commercial pressures which ensure that their promises are delivered.

In the last six years we have watched with fascination the unfolding of the greatest private sector experiment of all. When Britain's Conservative government passed the Railways Act in 1993, it opened a laboratory of change. The results were certainly not those expected by the politicians of the day, who had wrongly assumed the rail mode in Britain to be in decline. Many others, including senior industry figures and your editorial team, saw the proposals as a threat to the industry. Since then sufficient time has passed to start drawing conclusions, and we offer some here in the context of railway investment.

First, the move to the private sector coincided happily with a boom in Britain's economy, helping to drive traffic figures up in the early days. Second, the main freight business was taken over by a company led by a true entrepreneur who instigated a sorely needed change in culture. Although Ed Burkhardt has left the scene to run his own business, and the ambitious targets that he had set English Welsh & Scottish Railway have had to be scaled down, the investment in 280 new locos and wagons that he initiated will bear fruit for years to come.

Third, with the privatisation programme complete, the structure proved to be far from ideal. The successor Labour administration rapidly set about reshuffling the cards and, fresh faces and clean brooms have instigated another flurry of change. While many difficulties remain, the atmosphere has changed, and we detect an optimism that did not exist before.

The refranchising process has turned on a fountain of aspirations and novel proposals, exemplified by Virgin Trains' project for a high speed line up Britain's East Coast. While the SSRA has predictably called for further studies, investment schemes put forward by other budding franchisees are similarly ambitious. Passenger traffic in Britain is rising at 6 to 7% a year and is 30% up compared with the last full year in the public sector. Train operating companies are working with infrastructure company Railtrack to raise capacity, and tracks previously lifted to save money are being reinstated. Some of British Rail's best managers have returned to the business, and an exciting vision is emerging. There are still major competitive threats and uncertainties, but the future is far from bleak. n

CAPTION: One of the most ambitious investment projects relying on private sector funding is the upgrade of Britain's West Coast Main Line. In partnership with Amec, Railtrack completed in April the installation of 22 steel footbridges in northwest Britain to eliminate foot crossings over the high speed tracks. Amec cut construction time by 25% compared with the original programme, required 15% fewer possessions and brought down the time taken to erect a bridge from 12h to 2 1/2 h

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