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Time for a proper debate on the future of our railways

I’m not usually one to moan about the state of Britain’s railways. As someone who regularly travels up and down the country by rail, I generally find the trains punctual, the carriages clean and the journey times reasonable. Perhaps I’d feel differently if I came to work on one of the country’s packed local commuter services.

But while on holiday in France last week I was reminded of the dangers of low expectations. My, admittedly short, journeys there were on spacious carriages in which second class was more pleasant than British first class, and which sped along with none of the stop-start chugging that characterises most journeys in the UK.

By far the worst thing about the British rail system, however, is the cost. A 2012 report by think tank Just Economics found that UK trains were not just slower and less comfortable than those of other major western European nations but also that they were by far the most expensive for farepayers - and the worst value for money for the country as a whole.

Most people now believe the railways should be renationalised (two-thirds of the public according to pollsters YouGov). It’s a common perception that taxpayers and farepayers are pumping huge amounts of money into the network only for private companies to provide substandard service and pocket millions in profit.

So perhaps it’s surprising that Ed Miliband’s recent suggestion that a Labour government would allow a state-owned railway company to compete for the chance to run parts of the network wasn’t better received. In fact it barely registered as news at all.

It’s also disappointing, not because renationalisation is clearly the answer to our woes but because we desperately need a proper debate on the future of the railways. We have a worse network than our European neighbours despite similar subsidy levels to the French and much higher fares. Rail travel is increasingly unaffordable, even to affluent commuters, at a time when we should be encouraging more people to use public transport.

That is except in London, of course, where for some reason a state-owned transport network backed with a disproportionate amount of public funding is a perfectly acceptable way of providing people (including politicians) with an excellent service.

A brief look at the organisational structure of the national rail system gives a picture of something approaching chaos: witness the farce of Richard Branson taking the government to court because it messed up the franchise system so badly. This week we’re told the network will finally be installing a much overdue consistent wifi service, but it will be paid for by taking money away from another part of Network Rail’s budget.

First Great Western is currently promoting “the biggest investment since Brunel” in the line from London to the South West. But unlike in the days of Brunel, it is the state (through Network Rail) and not private companies like First that is paying for most of this investment.

The government likes to imagine the railways are run and invested in by efficient private companies free from state interference. Instead we see micromanagement throughout a complex system by a government determined to direct the spending of the huge subsidies it distributes.

The current plans to spend £38bn on the rail network over the next five years are a welcome boost to efforts to provide Britain with a competitive 21st century infrastructure. But as well as throwing money at the problem, it’s time we looked again at how we can get the best value as well as the best service from our trains.

Readers' comments (16)

  • I whole-heartedly agree with the sentiments presented here. We at Electroustic are campaigning for super fast FREE Wi-fi on UK trains to help improve passenger journeys & experience and are urging like minded companies to do the same!

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  • The UK rail network runs a fairly decent service - certainly on a par with trains in France and Germany, if not with those in Switzerland. Wifi deployment, ticketing options, and train information are ahead in the UK. Prices are comparable except for the very high peak, or "anytime" prices which may be due to the commuter nature of a lot of lines. The trains are not normally as nice but this is partly down to the smaller loading guage.

    Nationalising train operations may improve some aspects and may worsen others. The McNulty report undertook a lot of benchmarking against overseas services and from that it's hard to see where nationalisation would help. It did identify a number of areas for improvement - some of these are currently being worked on.

    One approach that could make sense is managed contracts - as used by TfL on many services. London Orbital is well run by a consortium, but it's a TfL service. However, the private franchise operators have been very good at increasing sales - or demand for their services. Passenger usage has doubled since privatisation, with some TOCs like Chiltern tripling passenger numbers.

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  • Re-nationalisation is one answer but only provides for a future Tory Gov to privatise at public cost, again.
    By all means, take control of this national asset (as an example to gas, electric, Telecom & Waterways) and set the whole thing up properly with the Operating Company owning the stations, Rolling stock and lines. There may be a need for, for example, stations in Shared ownership and national standards to enable trains sets to be loaned. There may be a need for regional subsidy but there should be no need for the horrendous mess the Major Government left us with.

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  • When are we going to have a properly integrated transport system........air, road and rail. The main problem we have today is that in order to arrive in an efficient manner on any one system, whether it be modernised or not, one has to run the gauntlet of getting to the point of embarkation which is usually half way across the country. Then there is the question of parking. Utter shambles, I hope Dr Beeching is turning in his grave.

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  • The services I use now are way better than ever under Nationalised BR days. Punctuality and customer service are vastly better. In terms of the measure I have always used of railways costing twice as much as putting fuel in a car, they are not wildly dissimilar in cost, some up, some down. So, let's look at how to build on the improvements of the last few years.

    Mind, let's tax lorry transport properly and force them onto the railways for longer journeys to create some more investment, and not subsidise each lorry on the road by hundreds of £k per year.

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  • i agree with " grumpy old engineer" about getting lorries off the roads but as the existing railways are unable to cope with more slow trains i think we should rethink HS1 or 2 and should be adding extra freight lines this would be give a better return for our money by reducing traffic and pollution

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  • Improve the last mile.

    From the home to the station, from the station to work, and vice versa.

    Have the buses run as long as the train. If the local buses stop, then have train companies run buses. Or additional bus companies.

    In Bangkok, free feeder buses drive around each block to bring more passengers to the subway.

    In Hong Kong, the train company is running buses to bring people to the station.

    In Hong Kong, on public holidays MORE buses are in operation because MORE people are out of the office and want to go somewhere.

    In Hong Kong, shops are open when people are coming from work. In Coventry shops close before I leave the office. How can I shop in High Street?
    Shops are open on Sundays for limited time, but there is also limited bus service.

    Staying home on Sundays, sleeping and resting on Saturdays, hence: shopping by Internet.

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  • Yet again the Labour Party see a political opportunity, what an excellent opposition party they are - and long my it stay that way.

    One of many problems with the Railway system is the restictive and beauracratic practices the industry has to accommodate. A business needs to have freedom from political interference and have focus on providing the customer with value.

    State ownership does not provide value to the user (customer) but becomes a comfort blanket for the vested interest groups that proport to speak on it behalf.

    So! if HS2 is such a good idea, then private investment should come waiving its cheque book. If as suggested the Chinese are part funding the enterprise - will you and I be offered the same terms and conditions to invest?

    Foreign investment is to be ecouraged but we must learnt to invest in ourselves and have the courage to take risks and not be reliant on others.

    If you really what a better railway system start in the North, near Newcastle and work down. Join the Northern Cities and the economic benefits will flow. But lets not go back to the death and despair of Nationalisation.

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  • Railways, The NHS, Education, etc, etc, will only improve when politicians stop using them as political footballs for their cheap point-scoring against each other, and start thinking in terms of what will actually provide better service for those who have to make use of the services provided. Less politics, more statemanship please!

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  • If you're using the term 'railway' you've already lost the discussion. Iron rails are the past and present, but not the future. Permanent Maglev is the future and it doesn't use rails. See levx dot com for a more detailed description of faster, quieter, more energy efficient, and more flexible passenger / cargo transport.

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