Time for a proper debate on the future of our railways

Senior reporter

Quiet suggestions from the Labour Party about minor renationalisation aren’t enough. We need a full discussion about getting better value from our train network.

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.