10 ways to fix our railways

In a history littered with ignominious moments, this week was a low point in the annals of Britain’s train network. But don’t despair, Simon Calder has a plan to get them back on track

1. Fare cuts, not rises, should be the norm

On a properly organised railway, a 24-minute journey from London to Reading would cost around £15, not the £20.60 you're actually charged. According to Sir Roy McNulty's scathing analysis last year of the rail industry, British taxpayers and travellers pay at least one-third more for trains than they should: the flawed privatisation process incentivised inefficiency. But until McNulty gets a green light to reform the railways, we'll continue to pay too much for too little.

2. Make the right connections

Many journey times could be halved simply by advertising existing connections. In Germany or Switzerland, cross-platform transfers of one minute are commonplace. Here they are "illegal" connections. To get from Castle Cary to Bath, say, you could take a train that arrives in Westbury at 12.52. The departure for Bath is at 12.56. But First Great Western thinks you're incapable of crossing the platform in four minutes. So its computer tells you to wait an hour for the next train. Operators that propose absurdly long connections deter prospective passengers.

3. Cut fares with no-frill trains

Anyone who has suffered in the outer reaches of Arriva Trains Wales or aboard a local service on Northern Rail will insist that no-frills trains already exist. But long-distance, high-speed services that run off-peak from "nowhere to nowhere", avoiding congested hub stations, have merit. They could take the strain off existing services, entice travellers away from Megabus, and inspire additional journeys. The French, who have proved rather better at running railways over the past 30 years, are bringing them in next year. With an Advance ticket from London King's Cross to Newcastle typically costing almost £60, Stratford to Sunderland for £30 looks appealing.

4. No tickets please, we’re British

Just as almost all the UK's trains run on 19th-century lines, almost all Britain's rail passengers are forced to use the Victorian method of proof of payment and entitlement: a small piece of cardboard with writing on it. For some journey types on routes with overlapping train operators, the printed ticket still has some merit. But the default for every Advance journey – as used by millions of passengers every week – should be a barcode on a smart-phone display or a self-printed pass, with a small financial incentive over the price of traditional tickets.

5. Erase the false peaks

The 9.15am from Manchester Piccadilly to London Euston usually runs less than half full. The departure 20 minutes later is standing room only, because it is the first southbound off-peak service – for which the fare almost halves. This "false peak" is a consequence of the wish to preserve affordable walk-up fares and the notion of a "turn-up-and-go" railway. But the low-cost airlines have demonstrated the benefits of graduated pricing, and the railway rules should be loosened to allow some "de-peaking".

6. All you need is one click

To book online a one-way trip from Leeds to York tomorrow you need to work through at least eight web pages, even as a registered user. Then, to claim the ticket from a machine, you need to insert your credit card and tap in an eight-character code of letters and numbers. The whole procedure is likely to take longer than the 23-minute journey. Yet when you want a book or a DVD from Amazon, the process takes less than a minute. Given that the typical ticket is a relatively low-value transaction, one-click buying followed by simple verification (with a credit or debit card) should be the norm.

7. Extend the booking horizon

Today you can book a British Airways flight from London to Edinburgh for mid-September next year. Yet East Coast Trains will not allow you even to book for the forthcoming New Year's Eve. It is a safe bet that the northbound 10am will run on 7 October 2013, and indeed every other day next year, so why will the train firm not accept your money for it months ahead? No wonder Scotsmen (and women) are flying.

8. Get serious with rail cards

Rush-hour services aside, Britain's trains still have plenty of wasted space. The best way to persuade more drivers to abandon their cars and fill the empty seats is to copy the German BahnCard. For a card giving a 50 per cent discount on full fares nationwide, travellers pay €240 (£200) annually; for a year's unlimited travel, on any train, in first class, the price is €6,690 ($5,575).

9. Meet the driver

One-coach trains in rural areas still have a staff of two – with the takings from the conductor usually insufficient to pay the wages of either of them, let alone all the other costs. Take a lesson from Sweden, where similar trains are one-person-operated. Passengers pay the driver when they board – just as they do on buses.

10. Name your price for an upgrade

Long-distance holiday trains are characterised by packed standard class and wide open spaces in first. Train operators should pick up the airline trick of inviting passengers to bid for an upgrade: 24 hours before departure, the successful bidders are informed and their credit card is charged. More income for the train firm, more space for everyone.