THROUGHOUT their 200-year history, railways have been drivers of change, be it economic, political, social or military. It is probably no understatement to suggest that our railways have played a fundamental part in shaping the modern world.

Although rail no longer dominates the land transport sector, the mode still has much to offer. In an era of growing concern about long-term energy supplies and environmental sustainability, opinion formers in many countries are again looking to rail.

Whereas many of our articles focus in fine detail on the technical, operational and commercial developments affecting specific railways, this issue includes two special features that take a look at the ’big picture’.

On p517 international consultant David Burns reviews experience with privatisation over the past 20 years. And on p529 Dave van der Meulen presents his assessment of railways’ ability to react to changing global pressures. The key phrase that runs through both articles is sustainability - not so much as an environmental issue, but in terms of generating enough traffic and revenue to fund investment over the longer term.

Van der Meulen suggests that line-haul railways in much of the world are not sustainable according to strict commercial criteria. For those that are not, he writes ’depending upon whether economic, political or social criteria determine their destiny, they will then be eliminated, protected or subsidised.’

In commercial terms he is right, but rail can still make a significant contribution in terms of social inclusion and accessibility, helping to spread economic prosperity in ways that are difficult to quantify on a balance sheet. One has only to look at the fierce debate generated by the construction of the line to Lhasa, whose opening we reported last month, or at the effort put in by literally thousands of Namibians in building their northern extension railway towards the Angolan border.

Whereas it may not be easy to justify the construction of new lines, the traffic required to sustain an existing route is much lower. As a Dutch study in 2003 established, the inherited investment in rail infrastructure is so substantial that it is more efficient to keep using it than to develop an alternative.

Look at some of the places where railways have closed - some have declined markedly, and where others have prospered it has required huge investment in alternative modes. Eventually, we reach the situation now prevailing in Trinidad, where economic growth and road congestion now justify the construction of a new rail network to replace that abandoned in the 1960s.

Private-sector disciplines can do much to make any business more efficient, and the wave of privatisation looks set to continue. But as David Burns points out, it is essential that the railway must first be put on a sound commercial footing, or supported by a clear contract that reflects the social benefits. In many countries, concessionaires are struggling to revitalise networks that have been starved of investment whilst trapped in a contractual framework that fails to recognise the true situation.

As we look forward to an era in which railway operators can once again take control of their own destinies, the opportunities and challenges are as great as at any time in this journal’s 170-year history. So we have some exciting developments in the pipeline for Railway Gazette and its portfolio of information resources as we seek to play our part in spreading best practice across the rail sector.