Why is the railway so untidy?

Running a good business requires good housekeeping. Good modern factories are spotlessly clean. The best shops have well arranged goods, empty aisles and sparkle with their cleanliness. If you fly into Heathrow you see a busy airport around you, but you are not confronted by parked broken and decaying planes, piles of tarmac to repair the runway, or weeds growing high by the side of the taxiway.

Yet when you take a train into some of our town and city stations, you may see out of the window a railway wasteland. There may be sidings with weeds growing high, showing they have not been used or looked after for months. There are often piles of old timber, sleepers awaiting a use and other maintenance materials and parts stored carelessly in the outside weather by the tracks. There may be old and rusting carriages or waggons on abandoned track nearby. There may be substantial track that does not look as if it is much used.

All this gives the impression of a badly run business. Stocks cost money to buy and to keep out of use. Stockpiles held in all weathers out of doors will deteriorate more quickly than if properly warehoused. Disused equipment should be taken for refurbishment and reuse or sold for scrap, rather than hanging around in a siding.

There is also a lot of railway land that is not fully utilised. The land in or near to our major stations should have considerable development value. Of course the railway should keep routes it might need and space it may require for growth of its business, but at many stations it has more than this. It could remain the freeholder where development is a profitable prospect if it wishes.

The railway has access to such huge sums of state guaranteed borrowing and state subsidies, that it clearly does not think it needs to look after stocks, supplies and land. It does not make the capital work as hard as in most businesses. Many railway journeys show you through the carriage window that the railways, primarily Network Rail, are a long way off the pace of being a world class high quality operation. The capital base is very large and badly used and maintained. There are no profits before subsidy.


  1. Lifelogic
    November 27, 2013

    Indeed get rid of all the subsidies in rail, energy, agriculture and everywhere else, it is a damaging distortion to the sensible allocation of capital. Level the taxes between transport systems too so car fuel is not taxed at 120% or so and rail fuel hardly at all.

    1. Bazman
      November 27, 2013

      There would then be no railways system and the roads could not cope no matter how much they were upgraded or money spent on them. Would the abolishment of subsidies also apply to housing, nuclear, oil/ gas, roads, yes they are, and massive subsidies for private enterprise such as tax cuts, grants and the numerous others received by big business by not paying the correct tolls such as low wages causing welfare payments to be needed. The very biggest subsidies given to banking. To complicated for you we know.

      1. Iain Gill
        November 27, 2013

        if we are going to stop state manipulation and subsidy then stop the subsidy to council housing which is now nowhere near a jobs market!

        1. Bazman
          November 28, 2013

          Where would they all live then? London? What about the high unemployment there is there no jobs in their street?

  2. Arschloch
    November 27, 2013

    Sorry John but I think it goes with the business. I saw the same sort of stuff leaving Geneva for Lucerne the other week. The Swiss railways have a reputation for efficiency and are in a country whose natural beauty is one of its main money makers. Unfortunately their sidings look a bit scruffy too, though not as much as their counterparts in our big cities

  3. Mark B
    November 27, 2013

    Lack of competition. No effective regulation. Semi-monopoly. No pride in the service they provide and a lack of self worth.

    John Redwood MP said;
    “The railway has access to such huge sums of state guaranteed borrowing and state subsidies . . . ”

    Sink or swim ? Everyone and most other businesses have to. When your job is on the line (no pun intended) you tend to up your game. I know this from personal experience of working with people who think they are irreplaceable – zero effort ! When the opposite is shown to them, boy do they move. And the same goes for business. Remove the umbilical cord of subsidy. Especially if they are paying dividends and bonuses. I do not like my taxes used to make up the shortfall in some Executives contract.

  4. JoeSoap
    November 27, 2013

    Again,the British way.
    Look on scores of private sector building sites across the UK (also government subsided through help to buy) and you’ll see the same thing.

  5. IanVisits
    November 27, 2013

    I would hazard a good guess that for a lot of the scrap seen lying around, the cost of removal is higher than the value of the scrap itself.

    Removing old tracks is expensive, shunting derelict wagons around costs money. The manpower involved in auditing the scrap and planning its removal will be significant.

    I am sure that some of it could be cleaned up and money saved, but in all honestly, I doubt much impact would be had on the network.

    1. John Eustace
      November 27, 2013

      If people work in a messy environment they subconsciously learn that the quality of their work doesn’t really matter and there’s no point putting effort in because no one in management cares enough even to keep the place tidy.
      If they have an environment in which they can take pride they will in turn take pride in doing good work.
      That has applied in my career in the UK, US, Mexico and China alike. Get the basics right and the rest follows.

    2. lifelogic
      November 27, 2013

      No doubt endless costly health and safely and risk assessment and surveys would be needed before any rubbish could be cleared.

  6. Iain Gill
    November 27, 2013

    A lot of the remote stations in Scotland are immaculate. That’s because they still basically have the old station master system of one individual being responsible for the station. That individual takes pride in the place and often adds extra care over and beyond the call of duty. The impersonalised way other stations are managed now, with no one person in charge, is a large part of the problem.

    In many ways the old station master system was good, I would like to see a proper cost benefit analysis that compares the costs of proper station masters with costs of CCTV/vandalism/crime and lower quality station care. I doubt it’s as clear cut as people think.

  7. Mike Stallard
    November 27, 2013

    Two hundred years ago the railway was clean and indeed exciting. People paid just to go round in a circle in a grassy paddock. Or invisible in the (private and dangerous) mines.

    One hundred years ago – a century ago – on the eve of the First World War – railways were at their zenith. Tracks were filthy with grime. Knees grew black. Railway lavatories were disgusting. Yes, fleas and bugs infested third class where the Great Unwashed sat. But – hey! – that’s progress.

    Old places are dirty – especially if they are worked by coal fires. Don’t you remember before the clean air act and diesels took over?

    It is all part of the Great Railway Tradition. Old out of date things get – well – old!

  8. Acorn
    November 27, 2013

    Not the railways again! Are you running out of trivia to talk about? Worried about being “off message” while nobody in the party actually knows what the message is or might be, for the EU and General elections. It looks like immigration will be the single issue; thankfully, always a winner in the UK.

    Where is my referendum on Scotland leaving the UK? There is no Sterling currency area / union anymore, and I don’t want one now. Where do I tick the “no” box. We have about three territories that still use the Pound Stirling, and they are small enough not to worry about. (You would have thought that the Scots would have worked out that using someone else’s currency is a bad idea. Ask Portugal; Spain; Greece etc.

    This country is a political-economic mess. Investors don’t know if we will be in the EU or not. If Scotland will be in the UK or not. Will there be enough electricity to run a factory 24 hours a day? Will the UK continue, with the US, starting wars in other countries, making it vulnerable to reprisal attacks?

    Have a nice day 😉

  9. Anonymous
    November 27, 2013

    “Running a good business requires good housekeeping. Good modern factories are spotlessly clean. The best shops have well arranged goods, empty aisles and sparkle with their cleanliness.”

    Outdoor national railways are nothing like small and clean indoor shops or factories to run, however railways are often contaminated with detritus which originates FROM shops and factories (never the other way around.)

    “If you fly into Heathrow you see a busy airport around you, but you are not confronted by parked broken and decaying planes, piles of tarmac to repair the runway, or weeds growing high by the side of the taxiway.”

    Runways are much smaller than railways – a few hundred yards compared to a few thousand miles. Planes are flown out (relatively cheaply) to be discarded in American deserts.

    Wharehousing of spare parts is also difficult and expensive because of the sheer scale of the operation. Having strategically placed spares close to site saves an awful lot of expense in storage, loading and transport and is especially economical when an unforeseen breakdown in the infrastructure occurs. The travelling public would be most dischuffed were they to hear that their line was closed for a few days instead of a few hours awaiting the requisition of parts.

    Weathering has been discounted as an economic factor in outdoor storage of outdoor parts as it is such a slow process – retail building outlets store this sort of stuff outside too and (I might add) now charge a fortune for materials.

    UK railways are now top in Europe for safety.

    They’re obviously getting at least one thing right.

    1. Anonymous
      November 27, 2013

      UK railways now top for safety in Europe

      And that is despite having one of the highest levels of passenger miles travelled per year.

  10. alan jutson
    November 27, 2013


    Network Rail does not need to win new customers, it has a monopoly, its customers are the train franchises who have no alternative but to use their lines on which to run their own trains.

    Why should network rail be concerned about the passenger experience, other than avoiding paying compensation to the train franchisees for unreliable track maintainance, everything is deemed ok.

    When customers have little alternative, other than cars, coaches, planes, do not expect things to change much.

  11. rick hamilton
    November 27, 2013

    I have often thought the same thing. Why don’t they clean up all the junk and mess alongside the track as a matter of course? Unions claiming it’s not their job? Good housekeeping is a part of anybody’s job in a well run industry.
    If the taxpayer is subsidising the rail network why don’t we make offenders clean up the mess as “community service” if no paid employee will lift a finger?
    Compared with other countries our rail system is a disgrace. Even the idea of “on time” being within 10 minutes of the schedule is an insult.

  12. John Eustace
    November 27, 2013

    Well observed. I always make a point of looking round the back of a factory or warehouse before going in the front door for the first time.
    There is a very high likelihood that if things are a mess back there then the rest of the operation will be in similar disarray.

  13. Bradders
    November 27, 2013

    It is not just outside the train that litter is to be found, inside is often a mess too. The person with the drink-and-snacks trolley passes up and down the train selling snacks wrapped in plastic, cans of fizzy-drinks and cardboard cups of coffee. Then the passenger who buys this stuff often leaves the train having only consumed a fraction of it. In any event, one frequently selects a free seat, only to find that there is the debris from the previous passenger left behind on the seat or foldable table. What does one do with empty cans someone else’s half-drunk cup of coffee?

    1. Jennifer A
      November 27, 2013

      I often have a cake and a coffee on my train and I NEVER leave litter behind. I’ve never had trouble finding a bin to put it in.

      Why do people leave their litter behind ? Was it always so ?

  14. JimS
    November 27, 2013

    Aircraft cost a lot of money when new and are still relatively valuable when old. Airfields need to be ‘clean’ to stop ‘flying object damage’ to multi-million pound aircraft.

    Old steel and timber has minimal scrap value and it might cost more to recover it than to sell it. Railway land is often locked in and accessible only by rail. I think there are a lot of similarities here with farm land, it is difficult to get a change of use approved. Old farm machinery and buildings are also often abandoned as they too cost more to clear than recover.

    Modern factories, shops and airports cost a lot per unit area so need to be kept effective. The same isn’t true of railways or farms.

  15. Excalibur
    November 27, 2013

    Perceptive and apposite, John. I once wrote to John Prescott on this subject. The value of the land, abandoned buildings, and of track debris could almost pay off the national debt !! Not to mention the eyesore it presents to residents and tourists alike. But few people seem to notice.

    1. Anonymous
      November 27, 2013

      I’m more offended by graffiti on railway structures rather than the scrap lying around. Nothing is more dispiriting than urban scrawl or litter.

      Crime – rather than Network Rail engineering practices – is most definitely within the remit of our politicians so we can compare the performances of the two.

      Network Rail (economics aside) has helped produce a railway which has beaten the rest of Europe on safety. Had their engineers have performed as badly as politicians have on dealing with crime over the decades then they’d all be in prison by now.

      (Had railway engineers have performed as badly as politicians have on controlling our borders then people would be demanding life sentences for mass murder.)

      More engineers and fewer lawyers, PPE grads and useless talking-heads please.

  16. The PrangWizard
    November 27, 2013

    I’ve often had the same thoughts, and wondered how many hundreds of thousands of tons of steel has been just lying around for years quietly rusting away and rotting. I hate waste and neglect. I worked for a business with a large estate, mostly built property, but this was not its main business. It had woken up to the fact that a lot was underused – hitherto they didn’t know what they owned and had almost no interest in it – and my main task was to identify it and make some money from it. It required initial investment and we had to overcome the attitudes of some who were unaware of the issues but I eventually got control of a budget.

    I’m sure there will be people in Railtrack who probably would like to do something about the problems you outline but they are not sufficiently valued by those at the top of the food chain who want to been seen as doing glamorous things and making glossy presentations.

    I hope they will make a note of your comments.

  17. Lindsay McDougall
    November 27, 2013

    There is an organisation called Network Rail Consulting. Its web site describes it thus:


    Welcome to Network Rail Consulting

    Modernising your country’s railway is a substantial undertaking.

    Network Rail Consulting can help you. We are the rail experts who transformed Britain’s railway.

    We know how to get more out of legacy infrastructure and upgrade a live, heavily-used rail system. And we have unrivalled expertise in operating in a liberalised market.

    You can improve the performance of your railway and build capability for the future with our consultants.


    Any comments? Just how liberalised is the market they are operating in?

  18. libertarian
    November 27, 2013

    Totally agree. Ot our small village commuter railway station the car park cannot handle the number of cars needing to park. Yet next door is an area of land that was the former railway coal yard, its twice the size of the existing car park yet has been derelict for more than 40 years. I have confirmed that it is owned by Network Rail. They do not reply to my enquiries as to why they don’t use it. If this land was bought back into use even as a car park they would make a highly reasonable income, provide better service to their customers and be a better community neighbour. I guess that all the while we continue to subsidise rail with tax payers money why bother to provide an effective service?

    1. Bazman
      November 28, 2013

      They rake in money from car parking charges and if they had a massive car park this would drop. How obvious is that. In my town they charge seven quid a day to park a car. £35 a week! There is a constant battle between commuters and residents about the right to park. No danger of them building a bigger car park though or lowering prices on the often half empty one. Half full of very expensive cars. What does that tell you? A landowner could make a fortune running a park and ride service undercutting them, but guess who would object and who the council would support?

  19. Antisthenes
    November 27, 2013

    What you describe indicates that the railway business has serious problems which are caused by either bad management or profound financial difficulties or the structure it operates in is deeply flawed (‘similar to the NHS). It may not be a case of improving the first two as probably the main cause is the third so improvements there would no doubt fix the others. We have seen this state of affairs all too often in the past and generally it has seen the wholesale reform of an industry or their demise. Closing the rail network is not an option yet so unless there is reform the service will continue to decline and what you have seen and described will become ever more frequent.

  20. margaret brandreth-j
    November 27, 2013

    It takes a tidy mind to be uncluttered John. We all know that there are constraints on budgets , time and workforce, however the underlying requirement for cleanliness is an unease with mess.
    I went to the surgery this am and looked down the streets which were cluttered with take away wrappings, paper cups, fag ends, unmentionables and cans and spirit bottles. My own small close doesn’t have these problems, but these probably better funded areas around my workplace have residents who think it is their right to abuse public places.
    We should not make excuses for these types within our community.
    Similarly the banks around trains should be tidied and grassed over and flowered with insect attracting meadow flowers as far as possible.

    1. Monty
      November 27, 2013

      Margaret, the reason why many of our railway embankments are overgrown with pernicious weeds, mare’s tail is a prime example, is because they were deliberately planted there, to stabilise the embankments and protect them from erosion.

      1. margaret brandreth-j
        November 28, 2013

        Mare’s tail is the same as Horse tail? I loathe the ones in my garden , they apparently have a coating which can’t be destroyed by weedkiller. I can understand how the underground runners create stability, but can’t oxeye daisy and poppies grow in between these stubborn weeds?

  21. Bazman
    November 27, 2013

    If the whole railway system were to be truly privatised we would see most parts of it become very tidy as there would be no trains and anything of value would be sold off. The land would then be sold for housing. The rest could then be used for park and rides on the out skirts of the towns for those not willing to pay parking fees. Problem solved.

    Reply None of that happened when the railways were privatised.

    1. Bazman
      November 28, 2013

      The railways were not privatised only the profits were. If they were to be cut off from all public money as sure as night follows day this would happen.

  22. DiscoveredJoys
    November 27, 2013

    Because nobody cares. Or not enough people anyway. Ownership is fragmented and the customers largely captive.

  23. Robert Taggart
    November 27, 2013

    Airy-Fairy ideas about a renaissance of ‘good old fashioned’ freight trains be the reason for so much railway wasteland.
    Successive governments have bowed to pressure from Rail Freight pressure groups to keep these lands – just in case some freight use can made of it in some future nirvana.

    In the days of ‘good old’ British Rail – their own Civil Engineers Department was the culprit. An old freight depot or rail served factory might have ‘bitten the dust’, but, the CE locally would claim such land for their own possible future use – and the ‘rot set in’.

  24. Kenneth R Moore
    November 28, 2013

    Mr Redwood, I think you are right to be vexed by the condition of our railways but there are more pressing matters. ..just over 30 days to stop your country being destroyed by a tidal wave of poor and desperate EU migrants?.Abstaining from votes scheduled by like minded colleauges won’t help your cause.

    Reply I have co sponsored an amendment to the Immigration Bill to continue the controls on Bulgaria and Romania, and wrote a blog recently on this topic. I can’t write about it every day! I have lobbied Ministers on it and raised in the Commons in the past in good time for them to take action. I have held several meetings this week about the excessive power of the EU and will be co sponsoring another proposal later this week to tackle the UK’s inability to govern itself in crucial areas.

    1. Jennifer A
      November 28, 2013

      The importance of the immigration issue cannot be stressed.

      A further loss of border control at this juncture will spell the end for the Tory party as a serious political force.

      Few people vote Ukip in the belief that they are capable of forming a government (trying to discredit Ukip rather misses the point of having them) but if the Tories fail this basic test then expect your voters to press the self-destruct button in 2015.

      Mr Cameron seems to have no inkling of just how scared we are and seems very feeble and slow to act on this issue despite much warning.

      It is most frustrating to behold.

  25. Mark J
    November 28, 2013

    More concerning are the prices we are charged and the level of service we are given.

    For the last few weeks there have been serious problems with trains leaving Reading station on time. Trains then leave Reading late and at Slough brake suddenly, completing the remainder of the journey between Slough and Paddington at a crawl.

    Usual excuses range from “signal failure” and “congestion on the line into Paddington”. When one can potentially spend in excess of £47 (inc Travelcard) in peak hours getting to London this is unacceptable.

    The other morning it took between 45-50 minutes aboard a HST to go from Reading to Paddington, the reason I use the line if for speed (sadly not offered on Reading to Waterloo) however this no longer seems to be the situation.

  26. petermartin2001
    December 1, 2013

    There are plenty of people looking for a job. If there were an employer-of-last-resort there are many jobs, such as tidying up derelict railway sidings etc, which could be done. The wages wouldn’t be high just a minimum wage and the work wouldn’t have to be compulsory.

    There would be many out of work people who would jump at the chance to establish their work credentials to a future employer. There would be many, in fact there are many, who would actually prefer to do something for their weekly income.

    It wouldn’t cost much to set up a pilot scheme. It could be started in a small way in some of the areas of highest unemployment. The costs and benefits would be monitored and if the scheme was successful, if the costs compared favourably with money spent on training schemes etc could be extended nationwide.

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