RAILTRACK has warned the government that it expects total passenger-km on Britain's national rail network to double within 13 years, leading to a serious shortage of track capacity in key areas.

Giving evidence before the House of Commons Transport Sub-Committee on November 26, Chief Executive Gerald Corbett said the forecast had been included in Railtrack's response to the government's consultation document on integrated transport. This was published in August, with responses forming input to a transport strategy white paper expected in May.

A drastic reduction in road construction partially compensated by much greater use of rail for passengers and freight were declared objectives of the Labour government elected in May 1997. There have been dire warnings of traffic jams from road interests, but only now are transport professionals beginning to grapple seriously with the implications for rail. Unlike continental Europe - and excepting the 108 km Channel Tunnel Rail Link to London which faces daunting financing hurdles later this year - there are no plans to build new high speed lines that might free up capacity for freight and regional passengers on existing trunk routes.

Corbett told the MPs there were 'around 15 big capacity issues across the country' and fixing them all would cost 'hundreds of millions' of pounds. Railtrack Chairman Sir Bob Horton promised to set out in his third Network Management Statement next March a programme for dealing with '15 to 20 pinch points in the system', but while his company was 'extremely keen' to keep passenger and freight moving upwards, 'that is highly dependent upon capacity being available.'

Passenger-km on Railtrack's network during 1996-97 were 32.2 million; more recent statistics show rail travel running 5% ahead of the previous year. Doubling passenger-km to around 65 million has staggering implications. It is well in excess of the volume ever moved by Britain's railways, and the total has never reached 40 million since nationalisation in 1948 when there were five times as many coaches and 2.5 times as much track as there are 50 years later.

There is undoubtedly a lot of spare capacity in the network, but unlocking it will require co-ordination and planning in a situation where immense effort is required to negotiate even the simplest investment project. For example, we reported in good faith eight months ago (RG 5.97 p273) that 'National Express Group has ordered eight 8-car EMUs from GEC Alsthom Metro-Cammell to operate its Gatwick Express franchise.' Yet no contract had been signed by mid-December although franchise terms require the whole fleet to be in service within 15 months!

Railtrack's forecast simply aggregates and projects forward the business plans of 13 companies holding 25 passenger franchises lasting 7 to 15 years. They may well prove optimistic, but then a virtual freeze on road building is a new situation and rail's overall market share of around 5% is tiny compared to the car's 90%.

Freight forecasts are even more bullish. English Welsh & Scottish Railway, which dominates rail freight, has forecast a tripling of tonne-km by 2007 with a 30% rise in train-km already achieved. EWS Chairman & CEO Ed Burkhardt sounded the alarm at a Chartered Institute of Transport conference on November 24 when he said that the full West Coast main line upgrade for 225 km/h tilting trains and the Thameslink 2000 projects 'would leave very little room for any freight whatsoever.'

Sceptics may point to the steep decline in coal being burnt in power stations, but unlike coal the growth in freight is mainly on trunk passenger routes. Railtrack's freight strategy studies, which include loading gauge enhancement for piggyback, are currently piling even more pressure on the south end of the WCML as the higher capital and operating costs of using longer secondary routes emerge.

Privatisation has sharpened the focus on winning more business and that is good news. But the fragmented structure within which major projects such as CTRL now have to be formulated is creaking ominously under the strain. A Strategic Rail Authority, as promised in the white paper, is urgently needed to pull the whole thing together.