The BBC highlighting very high rail fares in the UK today is inclined to suggest the cause is the government’s policy of requiring more of the costs to be paid by passengers and less by taxpayers. It is one of Labour’s policies that I support. The true cause of high rail fares in the UK is the high cost way our railway is run. Fares are a rip off in many cases. They do need to be brought down. Pumping more taxpayer cash in is not the way to do it.
Britain’s railways are neither green nor good value for money. Indeed to some extent the bad policies that damage the environment are the same ones as make the railways too dear. Put simply, the UK runs too many unpopular trains that are more than half empty, too many heavy trains which require too much energy to speed them up and slow them down, and runs too many old and inefficient engines to haul them.
The railway also uses people wastefully, as it does fuel. It runs on too many consultants, managers and non operational staff, living in its own overregulated high cost world. Compare the approach of the railways with that of the low cost no frills airlines, and you will see what I mean.
It would be a good idea to have a blitz on all those costs and requirements which make our railways high cost. We need more trains on popular routes at popular times – especially commuter routes during the morning and evening peak. Unfortunately with heavy trains, poor brakes and old signals it means we cannot run nearly enough trains on the generous amounts of track we have. Let’s buy cheaper lighter trains that can speed up and slow down much more rapidly, allowing many more trains an hour.
Fly over southern England at the morning peak and you see crowded main roads with traffic bumper to bumper, and largely empty railway lines with large gaps between trains for safety reasons owing to the type of train, and the traction and braking system. We need either to fill more of the seats at off peak times by price discounting, or to reduce the number of unpopular trains trundling around the country largely empty. The railways have some of the bets routes in to our city centres, but they simply are not used enough owing to the technology.
Since Labour nationalised Railtrack the costs of providing and maintaining the track have shot up. It has been a consultants field day. The business is most unresponsive to commercial opportunity. Take them a property project to improve a station and make some money from associated commercial development, and they will sit on it or fail to progress it for years. In Wokingham they stayed out of the property boom as they did elsewhere, failing to improve their own property from profits on commercial development on their extensive land holdings.
The nationalised railway in the long post war period failed to put in a simple spur line to Heathrow, the world’s busiest international airport, until the idea of private capital finally brought about such an obvious business move. The rail network was great for Victorian industry, and even managed to update itself for the early twentieth century business estates. The long years of nationalisation saw the railways fail to move with the times. Now much of industry is on newer business parks located by motorways, without spur lines and sidings, because the railway failed to market itself to business to carry goods.
We need a more commercial approach. The railways could have a relative advantage at taking more commuters and more goods traffic. If they did so successfully they could lower the fares, because they would have more revenue and less cost for each journey. They need lighter trains, cheaper trains, fewer consultants and better traction.