UK outpaced by global express

Britain, pioneer of the 19th Century railway revolution, has a long way to go if it is to measure up to world-class rail standards in the next century, says Roderick Smith

It has been said railways were Britain’s gift to the world. We are justifiably proud of the great works of our pioneer engineers who, more than 170 years ago, began a revolution in transport.

Today, there is much talk of a railway renaissance which started in Japan, spread through western Europe and is now showing itself in Britain, as the newly organised railways get down to serious business.

In the UK, there are some encouraging signs. More passengers are being carried, more trains run and, at long last, freight traffic is increasing. It is therefore a good time to take stock of our railways and consider what is necessary to produce a system the public will want to use, rather than be reluctantly forced to use because of parking and traffic congestion problems in our cities.

When the West Coast Main Line was modernised and electrified in the 1960s, it was claimed to be worldclass – probably justifiably, given the state of railways elsewhere at that time. But if we look abroad now, many people, including senior figures in our own railway industry, may be surprised to learn how far we have fallen behind best practice.

It is worth looking at some key comparisons. Since the end of the Second World War, the numbers of passengers and amount of freight carried by our railways have fallen dramatically. In 1952, 18% of passenger kilometres were carried by rail; by 1996 this had dropped to 5%. And in 1952, 16% more freight was moved by rail rather than road; in 1966, 12 times more moved by roads than by rail. In the Netherlands, 9% of passenger transport is by rail; in Switzerland 15%; and in Japan, a huge 57%. In Austria, 48% more freight is moved by rail than road and in the US, 9% more goes by rail.

Of more importance to passengers is the question of reliability. Our definition of arrival on time, that is within 10 minutes of the posted time (excluding weekends, holidays and really bad days), is unambitious, yet we fail to deliver.

On the Virgin Euston-Scotland route last October, only 76.3% of the trains arrived within 10 minutes of the timetable. In Japan, over a similar distance, the Tokyo to Osaka route had 96.1% of trains arriving exactly on time and only 0.78% of trains were 10 or more minutes late. Reliability is clearly a major challenge to be overcome before we can gain passenger confidence.

New vehicles and track improvements should slash journey times from Birmingham to Edinburgh, Manchester and Bristol. Welcome though these improvements are, they pale into insignificance when compared to world best practice.

The purpose of this international benchmarking is to set high but realistic improvement targets for rail operators. We now have a rail connection to Europe, but Eurostar’s differing performance on the opposite sides of the Channel is a microcosm of the difficulties we face.

For railways to improve radically, massive investment is required. This is unlikely to be provided by the `magic wand’ of privatisation. The Strategic Railway Authority must take a strategic, system-wide view and persuade the Government to adopt a broad societal approach when the costs and benefits of our railways are counted.

One price for improving services might be a further shrinkage of the rail network’s extremities in order to concentrate on the two aspects that rail is good at: high-speed intercity travel and moving large numbers of commuters in and out of our cities.

While the technology to improve our railways is in use elsewhere, our technical skills are being dissipated keeping a clapped-out system running – a task which, to be fair, our railway engineers do have world-class expertise in. How much better these skills could be used, and how much more attractive our railways would be, if we could make the commitment to return our system to what it once was: a world-class railway.

Roderick Smith is the Royal Academy of Engineering/British Rail Research Professor and Chairman of the Advanced Railway Research Centre at the University of Sheffield.