Britain needs honesty about the hard choices for its rail network

The public are waiting on a freezing platform, trying to get to work, not eagerly anticipating some years-away infrastructure mega project

Wednesday 02 January 2019 18:55 GMT
Rail fares to go up 3.1 per cent in 2019

The problems with Britain’s railways are obvious: rail travel is too expensive; the service is not punctual; and in some places last year it collapsed. As a result, people have missed appointments, interviews, meetings, family events, happy and otherwise. Some have lost their jobs or had to move as a result of these epic failings, especially in the north of England. Commuters and casual travellers alike are having to pay what seem like extortionate fares.

As The Independent’s indefatigable travel correspondent Simon Calder reports, some intercity journeys cost £1 per mile, highlighting the absurdities that have entered the economics of public transport. A London-Birmingham season ticket is £10,900 a year; the comparatively short hop from Glasgow to Edinburgh attracts a charge of £4,084; and from Wakefield to Manchester you’ll pay £3,172. All too often, a seat is not included.

These truths are so self-evident that even the temperamentally contrary Chris Grayling has stopped trying to deny them, though some of the train operators are still pushing lines about unprecedented investment and the like.

They are doing themselves no favours with the public, who are waiting on a freezing platform to get to work, rather than eagerly anticipating some years-away infrastructure mega project that may never be finished.

The present system, then, is not working to the satisfaction of anyone, apart perhaps for some of the operating companies’ executives.

The model of privatisation opted for in the 1990s, with the ownership and management of the railways split between the track and trains, and across the regions, has failed. Even the government has tacitly admitted as much with the Rail Review, in effect a White Paper, which is scheduled to produce some final recommendations this autumn. After that perhaps a more sustainable, and satisfactory, future for this essential service can be forged.

It will not, however, be an easy task. Someone, somewhere, has to pay for the many services – the majority probably – that are uneconomic, and have been since road freight and the car started to undermine the rail business model after the First World War.

Although commuters may pay a distressing proportion of their salaries to get into London from the home counties, they remain subsidised by the general taxpayer. What, it might be reasonably asked, is so right about getting someone on average earnings living where there isn’t even a train station to subsidise the living costs of an investment banker travelling in to the City from their mock-Tudor pile in Surrey or Oxfordshire?

If trains are overcrowded, in fact, one easy way to fix that would be to ration by price – an unpopular move but the traditional market mechanism, ameliorated by cheap advance fares booked easily online. If greater capacity is needed, then who should foot the bill for investment? Is the investment best made in the congested, overcrowded south, or in the north to stimulate regional “powerhouse” growth?

The case for nationalisation is that the railways were better (or not as bad) under British Rail. In some aspects this is true – in real terms many fares were much lower. On the other hand, the ageing rolling stock, punctuality and, er, the sandwiches, were certainly inferior to those of today. Not everything about privatisation was a disaster – private investment did flow in, and profits and dividends are needed to offer a return on capital.

At base, the nation needs to decide whether it wants to run its railways as a business – which is more or less where we have ended up – or as a public service, with the claims that will make on public spending and borrowing. If we choose the latter, that will mean, as in the 1970s, that British governments will be forced to choose between purchasing new carriages for the railways or new tanks for the army or new MRI scanners for the NHS: at some point tough choices must be made in a world of scarce resources.

Or, to pose some other hypotheticals: shall we cancel HS2 to pay for cheaper fares or more capacity on the likes of the notorious East Grinstead service to London? Shall we increase VAT to do the same? Shall we tax cars far more heavily, even for those using them in remote rural areas, miles from a bus stop let alone a rail line? Does it make sense to keep Teesside airport railway station open if it entertained just 74 passengers in the whole of last year?

The greatest service the Rail Review can provide is to put to the public these sorts of questions, and the options available, and to gently but firmly insist that we cannot have a railway that runs as profitably as Royal Dutch Shell but provides the sort of virtually free service the NHS does. The public would like frequent, 100 per cent punctual services on every route; permanently cheap fares; comfortable rolling stock; bright, safe, supervised and modernised stations and facilities; and which costs the taxpayer nothing. That is one route that will never run.

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