It no longer surprises me that whenever I write of railways enthusiasts rush to defend every last feature of current or past railway operations. They go on to assume I do not know how railways currently work, and allege that railways can never be improved but have to be run according to current or past methods. It makes for a depressing debate.
In the real world business strives for constant improvement. Innovators review every feature of how cars or phones or computers work and seek improvements to steal a competitive march, to lower costs, embellish specifications, enhance performance and wow customers. Railways in the eyes of their UK enthusiasts are usually stuck in a twentieth century time warp, with many wanting to go back to nationalised British Rail and some still in love with steam traction. The railway industry need not be immune to the same insistence on change and improvement that we see in most competitive business sectors.
The industry is moving on more than some enthusiasts realise.The heads of the industry understand that they control fabulous straight routes right into the centre of our main cities, and appreciate they need to use these routes more to help us move the rising numbers of people wanting to travel. The industry accepts that improvements are possible. These include lighter trains that accelerate and brake more quickly; better signals that allow more trains to use track safely; better timetabling to reduce conflict between fast and slow trains; more passing points and platforms to allow more use of track by more trains; and removal of bottlenecks, as recently undertaken at Reading station.
Competition is the main driver of progress. We allow limited competition in train provision through the franchise auction process. More importantly we now allow some contestability of the franchise, which can create new routes and services as challengers to the incumbents. As the government reviews the present structure of the railways it needs to examine how reuniting track and trains in single companies might assist, and how such regional monopolies could be kept honest by allowing challenge from other companies to offer competing services.
The car I currently drive has so many more better features that the car I drove twenty years ago. It is much more fuel efficient, safer, with new on board navigation technology, better tyre life, longer service intervals and with an initial price no higher than I paid in the last century to buy an equivalent car. It shows what competition can do. I do not think it is perfect and I urge the industry to improve as they can on what they have sold me. Why not the same optimism from railway buffs? Why do they think their current railway could be perfected by making it a state monopoly again?