Labour’s railway – more delays and higher fares!

Even the engineering works fail to run on time

The first thing people need from train travel is reliability. If there is a frequent train service with trains running to timetable, you can plan your day and your journey accordingly. If there are too few trains, or if the trains are late, the whole day can be disrupted. Busy people are then into cancelling meetings, failing to turn up for appointments, or for politicians letting down audiences who have sought their help to keep democratic debate alive in the UK.

The second thing regular users of trains need is affordability. The latest round of fare increases are in many cases swingeing, at a time of restrained earnings growth, higher taxes and mortgage payments, and a credit crunch. We are used to many of the things that are supplied by the competitive private sector becoming cheaper over the years, as the bargains in the January sales in the clothing and textile departments remind us, and as the ever better car offers on the forecourts confirm. The poor old train commuter is sandbagged again. He or she is being made to pay an ever heavier price for trying to rely on the railway.

So why are train travellers this week being made to pay through the nose, and why are they being told that there are still no trains on part of the West coast mainline near Birmingham?

The answer is partly the botched nationalisation of Network Rail by this government, partly the technology and partly the fixation of trying to get more speed out of the railway instead of concentrating on reliability and affordability, the things that matter most to passengers.

The government has been at its most prejudiced when it comes to transport. The bankruptcy of Railtrack turned a poor solution into a worse solution, leaving all the evils of monopoly in place when it comes to track provision, whilst removing the restrictions on overspending that applied to Railtrack but not to Network Rail. The answer is exactly what you would expect from a monopoly with effective recourse to the taxpayer to underwrite almost any level of spending it wishes to undertake on the existing network ?? an expensive but inefficient system where the passenger can be made to pay by both higher fares and more cancellations and delays, and where the taxpayer picks up a huge tab as well.

The governments answer to the growing cost of rail travel is to seek to make the main competitor, road travel, dearer as well. Because the private sector parts of road travel are becoming more efficient more quickly, the government has to intervene more and more to slow traffic down, to increase the costs of road fuel and to increase the costs of road use by adding specific road charges to the high motoring taxes. Despite all this, rail still only accounts for 6% of travel, because the railways in their current state simply cannot take the extra volume they would need to take if we were to effect any kind of modal shift from car to train.

The pursuit of higher speed for trains is the immediate cause of the delays on the West coast mainline. If you wish to allow trains to achieve speeds twice as fast as you think safe for road traffic, you need to change all the signals and to check the track very carefully. If you wish to sustain those speeds over any distance you need to lay new straight track for longer distances. The railway is not offering a competitive service for so many of us for so many of our journeys owing to too much political interference in priorities and the endless pursuit of the prestige project of super fast trains between large cities.

The railway under this government has become a great black hole, devouring huge amounts of taxpayer cash and taxpayer guarantees. They refuse to order their priorities in line with the public need for more and more reliable trains, not necessarily faster trains.

The railway Ministers should realise just how big a gap has opened up between rail and road transport. Standards of safety, fuel efficiency and passenger comfort have advanced much more rapidly on the roads than on the tracks. It is an offence to travel in a car without a seat and seat belt, yet you may still have to travel on a long distance fast train with no seat, let alone a seat belt. The interiors of modern cars are well padded in case of a crash, with no sharp or hard surfaces offering a threat to life or limb, whereas the train interior is full of hazards in a crash. The luggage in a car is placed in a separate compartment to the passengers, whereas on a train it is left in an overhead luggage rack with no restrains, so it can hurtle around the carriage in the event of derailment. Trains remain far too heavy. As a result they guzzle too much electricity or diesel, take long distances to stop, and are limited to very few trains an hour on any given stretch of track as a result.

The answers to the railway problem are not all difficult or too expensive. I do want to see the huge inherited network of great routes into our main cities and between our main cities taking more of our traffic, and I want them to do so in a way which is accessible to more people. I want to see more fuel efficient trains, lighter trains, and more frequent services ?? the three happen to go together.

My proposals are these:
1. Order new much lighter trains with better brakes, so we could go from running under 30 trains an hour on a typical piece of track, to 40 trains an hour
2. Spend the money on increasing capacity and reliability of what we have got, instead of concentrating on prestige projects for very fast trains using conventional train technology
3. Break Network Rails monopoly, reuniting track and train running and ensuring there is some competitive challenge in the network as a whole. Wherever possible there should be more than one company offering a service between major places.

If the rail providers had to compete for business they would not get their priorities so wrong, or let down their passengers so often. Nor would they be planning such a huge fare hike. The airport owner in London knows it has to compete with Paris and Amsterdam airports, so it does not close the main runways at Heathrow for engineering works over holiday periods when people want to travel. The shops do not close early in January because there are too many people wanting to sue them in the way we see tube stations closed at busy times. It is high time we had some new thinking, geared to the needs of us, the passengers.

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5 Comments

  1. Peter Turner
    Posted January 2, 2008 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    I have visited Switzerland many times and their trains run on time. However, the Swiss are not obsessed by speed. To them, it seems, how long a journey takes is not as important as the train leaving one station and arriving at another station at the time stated in the timetable. Thus it is possible to plan connections, meetings, appointments etc with a high expectation that they will not have to be cancelled.

    I am sure that leaving an opportunity for the train to adjust its speed as required contributes to this. If it is running late it can speed up and if it is running early it can slow down. With our timetables one gets the impression that they have no flexibility built in to allow for this. It is full speed or nothing.

  2. Posted January 2, 2008 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    On 26th December I got to the station to be told that the advertised service wouldn't be running. The station manager told me that the company should never have advertised it because at this time of year the engineering work always over-runs. If he knew this then why didn't Network Rail and the train company?

    The station manager did tell me, helpfully, that he thought the work was done better now than under Railtrack. That nugget did not help me get to work on time.

  3. Stuart Mark Turner
    Posted January 5, 2008 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

    The third proposal regarding the reuniting of train companies with the tracks on which the trains run is exactly how a great many problems can be solved.

    If the private companies which operate trains also owned the track they could maintain tracks and allow for further expansion without the need for government intervention, therefore the tax payer would not have to foot the bill for train journey's of others.

    I don't know how greater direct competition between train operators could be achieved, but that would be highly desirable. However I would like to make the point that while private and public monopoly are evils to be avoided, a private monopoly would not have the coercive power of the state behind it and therefore would be the lesser of those two evils.

    Reply: I agree, but why settle for monopoly when you can have choice?

  4. Stuart Mark Turner
    Posted January 6, 2008 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    To have choice would undoubtably be the best option, the market is the best way to guard against huge price hike's and below par service.

    However to achieve direct competition between train lines is rather difficult, I will outline a very basic situation that I am faced with when travelling from London to visit family in Lincolnshire, in order to demonstrate this.

    Option one;
    I could take the midland mainline train from St.Pancras to Nottingham (which takes on average 1hr30mins) and then change to a slow local train, where I also need to change trains (with waiting time factored into this equation add another 2hrs30mins). This results in a total journey time of approximately 4 hours.

    Option two;
    I could take GNER/Hull Trains from Kings Cross to Grantham (which takes on average 1hr15mins) and either have a family member pick me up in a car, or take a local train where I will need to change trains (this will take again with waiting time taken into account about 1hr45mins). Resulting in a total journey time of approximately 3 hours.

    Of course because of this I always take option two, of course midland mainline could improve the service and reduce journey times, however as you will note that part of the journey is not a problem. The local trains are where the problem lies and the local train operator from both Nottingham and Grantham is central trains, now of course they have a monopoly in that area and no reason to improve service.

    So from this situation it can be clearly seen that no matter how good the service offered by midland mainline (which I prefer anyway because they offer a free cup of tea). I could not possibly use them because of the monopoly held by central trains over the local service. Therefore there is no real competition between the two rival mainlines.

    So how could we introduce pure competition between these mainlines? Will we have to modify the system so that local train operators do not cover so large an area of the country? And if so how small an area would be acceptable?

  5. david f
    Posted April 4, 2009 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    one thing you have missed out, though i agree with most of what you are saying, is that many places have no services at all or to few places. I tihnk moe than one operator should be allowed to use each line so that if one does not provide the service, the other can to encourage competition though this is pretty much wha you have said. One possiblitly would be to have stations, rather than lines contracted out so that a city can have a train to another city (direct) despite the fact that it does not follow the conventional "route" in the same way that a coach can travel any route. This would reduce the need for changing on long journeys and encourage more use as changing trains is a typical "put off" to using a train. Obviously no one wants a train that is slow, expensive and overcrowded but even that is better than no train at all lol……

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, He graduated from Magdalen College Oxford, has a DPhil and is a fellow of All Souls College. A businessman by background, he has been a director of NM Rothschild merchant bank and chairman of a quoted industrial PLC.

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