October 29: Where are all the new trains?

IF THE Government is serious about saving the steel industry – David Cameron did announce measures yesterday to help energy-intensive manufacturers to reduce their fuel bills – perhaps it can explore the possibility of speeding up the construction of a new generation of trains for Britain’s rail network.

This follows publication of new data which reveal that the country’s rolling stock is at its oldest age in 14 years and no longer meets the expectations of those passengers paying an inflated price for the privilege of standing on overcrowded services.

Of course, it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge the fact that trains on the TransPennine Express route are amongst the most modern in the UK – only the London Underground has the benefit of more up-to-date carriages – but there simply are not enough of them. Rush-hour services, normally just three carriages long, rank amongst the most overcrowded in the country and the benefits to be derived from the route’s electrification will only be maximised if there are sufficient trains.

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Elsewhere the antiquated trains being used across the Northern franchise, and also the ageing fleet being used to carry passengers on the two routes linking Yorkshire with the capital, reflect the extent to which investment has been skewed in London’s favour by successive governments. This is borne out by the fact that travellers here still have to travel on Pacer trains which are little more than museum pieces and would not be tolerated by commuters in the South East. Yet, while the Government’s new franchise rules will place a greater onus on operators to provide better rolling stock, this should not preclude Ministers from asking if this investment can be accelerated so that it benefits not only passengers but also the steel industry in its hour of need.

Logjam in Lords

WHAT now for tax credits and the House of Lords? David Cameron gave little away at PMQs when he declined, on six occasions, to say that the recipients of tax credits will not be worse off from next April in spite of peers voting down the Government’s proposed changes. Despite pointing out the absurdity of an unelectable Labour leader being totally dependent on the support of the unelected Upper House, Ministers have misread the public mood on this.

They should have foreseen the outcry from low income families who are already working tirelessly to make ends meet and put in place a series of transitional measures so that they are not penalised for the inherent flaws within a welfare system that was allowed to become too benevolent towards those able people who chose not to seek employment.

Yet talk of new legislation to limit the powers of the House of Lords is also naive on the Government’s part – it will simply be voted down by those peers who were not convinced by Mr Cameron’s assurances that the changes to tax credits would not penalise eight out of 10 families. A more meaningful way forward would be for three options to be tabled – an unreformed revising chamber, a fully-elected Upper House and a partially-elected Lords – and Parliament pressing forward with the solution which attracts the most support from MPs and peers. It might be the only way to break the current legislative logjam.

A show of unity

THE annual period of remembrance, culminating in the silent solemnity of Armistice Day, is very much a time for personal reflection as families commemorate ancestors who gave their lives in this country’s name.

Though the annual poppy appeal has become a defining image of Britishness, it would be remiss not to fully acknowledge how Christians, Muslims and Jews fought side-by-side – this Saturday is the anniversary of the first Victoria Cross for gallantry being awarded to Khudadad Khan for deterring enemy forces long enough on the Western Front in 1914 for reinforcements to arrive.

This is also a time to give thanks for the freedoms of liberty, free speech and democracy, priceless values that apply to people of all faiths. As such, this week’s symbolic show of unity by vicars, imams and rabbis was a powerful, and timely, reminder that wider recognition of share principles can only help to improve community cohesion still further. Highlighting this common ground, where it does exist, can only help in taking the argument to those extremists whose intolerable views are incompatible with those of a civilised society.