Leading article: On the right track – shame about the service

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The railways want to draw our attention to some good news. According to figures published by the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC), the use of Britain's rail network, as measured by passenger miles, is at its highest level recorded since the 1950s. According to ATOC's director general, George Muir, "the railway brings people together and 2007 was a record year".

So should we be celebrating? Don't expect street parties any time soon. Few regular passengers will be fooled by these headline figures. Behind the talk of "record years" lies the uncomfortable fact that we have a third-rate rail system in this country. Consider the extended disruption over the Christmas holiday, thanks to engineering works by Network Rail. Consider the shambles of a service operated by First Great Western, which has provoked a passenger revolt. Consider the ridiculously complicated fare structure, which penalises anyone who fails to book their ticket months in advance. Certainly, there are some routes that are offering an improved service. But, overall, the network is a mess.

Rail networks on the Continent are almost universally cheaper, quicker and less congested than in Britain. And more people use the trains in Europe too.

There is a good reason why there are so few city-to-city air routes in France, and that is because the trains are so much more attractive. To some extent, the projected growth of regional airports in the UK represents a failure of our rail service to provide decent competition for inter-city travel.

Another pointer to the true state of affairs is the sharp fare hikes announced this year by the rail franchises. This is a pretty transparent attempt by the train operators to choke off greater demand. What sort of business responds to an influx of customers by trying to price them out? The answer is an inefficient and cosy cartel.

There have been huge subsidies for the rail industry in recent years. In fact, it has received more public money than in the days of British Rail. But even this has been insufficient to break through the obstacles of a botched post-privatisation structure, poorly-run and greedy train operators, a weak regulator and a legacy of chronic underinvestment.

People are travelling more frequently by train because of economic growth, greater commuting distances and congestion on the roads. That is no bad thing.

And we should be encouraged to the extent that train transport is considerably less polluting than car or plane. But we should not for a moment be persuaded into believing that rail passengers are getting anything like a satisfactory service.