Can anyone make the train take the strain?

Last night I attended a dinner to discuss the railways. It turned out to be a lively and interesting event, moving on from the usual train spotter’s enthusiasm for the past and the anorak’s belief that the only way you can run a railway is the way Network Rail do it.

I began my attempts to provoke new thinking amidst the assembled galaxy of railway directors, regulators and former regulators expecting to end up as isolated as the UK arguing for an EU which repeals legislation, but was pleasantly surprised by the turn of the conversation.

I complained that Network Rail has a monopoly hold over the best routes into all our city and town centres, yet can only account for 6% of the goods and passengers travelling. I urged the railway to change its mode of operation and its technology so it could carry far more people. I asked for lighter trains, more frequent services, more trains per hour on any given stretch of track following changes of weight, braking, traction and signalling. I asked why fares were so high yet subsidy still paid more of the bills than passenger receipts, condemned the over regulatory approach and the way the UK railway was outpaced in efficiency and service by many overseas railways.

The early defence that the technology and trains have to be as they are, and that you can never run more than 24 trains an hour safely on any piece of track soon transposed. I was told that the Engineering Director of Network Rail does agree that lighter trains are a must, and they will produce better performance, speeding up more quickly, braking more quickly and saving energy. I learnt that powerful figures from the industry and regulatory background also agree that Network Rail should be decentralised or split up, and some agree that track and train should be reunited in regional companies. Many agree that contestability is important, and as much competition as possible would be a welcome replacement for too much regulation.

I pointed out to Network Rail that they have all too many tatty or inadequate stations, like Wokingham’s. Property deals could release capital from commercial development on railway land to pay for new stations. Stations could invite in other businesses to supply services train users need – car servicing and cleaning, safe parking, food shopping, business services – as another source of franchise revenue.

All agreed by the end of the dinner that the current performance is not good enough, and that it requires substantial change to create a good working railway growing at a fast enough pace for travel demand. There was a lot of agreement that monopoly is at the root of much of the poor performance. One informed observer said that when Labour nationalised Network Rail, it took away all the private sector banker/shareholder pressures. As a result the cost base of the existing railway doubled rapidly! Network Rail is not the answer. It is a largely unaccountable monopoly, gobbling taxpayers cash but not yielding much by way of improved results.


  1. James Strachan
    January 30, 2008

    I agree with your views and the comments that you have received.

    What I hear on the grapevine about Network Rail is (a) very low productivity amongst maintenance employees and (b) layers and layers of ineffective middle management.

    The trouble is that they are New Labour’s favoured child.

  2. Neil Craig
    January 31, 2008

    That sounds like a very useful do. I believe that the long term future of rail should be automated driverless transport but everything you suggest is part of the route there.

    Before nationalisation the railways were what is called "natural monopolies" – big companies with no real competition on their particular routes – which is probably why they were far less innovative than motor vehicle manufacturers even back then.

    Railtrack was a serious attempt to overcome the natural monopoly problem & Labour's decision to use regulations to bankrupt it & thereby nationalise it (which, despite the evidence never happened, as the court declared) has been immensely costly to us all.

  3. mikestallard
    January 31, 2008

    At the end of the day, Europe will decide. The plan has already been consummated.
    "The Trans-European high-speed rail network is one of the European Union's three Trans-European transport networks, along with road and waterways. It was defined by the Council Directive 96/48/EC of 23 July 1996."
    For the details of the West coast Main Line and the route to Ireland, see:

    What you have been discussing is a minor line which really does not matter much to the Commissioners. It was no doubt an stimulating conversation and I very much hope that you all enjoyed talking about railways and some excellent food, wine and company.
    But you won;t get anywhere: the caravan has moved on.
    Transport was – until Lisbon – the first Pillar and run by the vice president of the Commission.
    And, as they remind us, they hold the purse strings.

  4. Rose
    February 1, 2008

    Japan sets the best example in providing clean, safe, frequent, and quiet trains and trams, at all levels of speed and weight. Privately owned and run, of course. They are also meticulous in their engineering, on which it all depends, and heavily manned. If only we could emulate them in this. But where do we get our engineers from, let alone meticulous ones, now that we have thrown away our grammar and technical schools, and no longer have large numbers of apprentices?

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