MANY OFFICE serfs like to slide away early on Friday afternoons within the quiet summer season months. So anger boiled over on August ninth when a number of rail strains had been shut down following an influence reduce. Delays had been so unhealthy on strains going north from London that it was faster for some commuters to trudge residence on foot. The snafu was the fault of the electrical energy business relatively than the practice firms. However it added to the railways’ rising repute for unreliability. With dreadful timing, it was introduced just a few days later that fares would go up once more subsequent yr, by 2.8%.
Boris Johnson’s authorities is consumed by the duty of getting Britain out of the European Union by October 31st. However earlier than then it should additionally make two huge selections concerning the railways. The primary is whether or not to go forward with HS2, a high-speed line between London and the north (see article). The second is repair the remainder of the community. This autumn an official overview by Keith Williams, a former British Airways boss, will take into account reform the franchising system underneath which most strains function. Mr Williams has already stated the present set-up has “had its day” and talked of “revolution, not evolution”.
The Williams report was commissioned after a catastrophically botched timetable change final summer season led to almost half the trains in northern England being delayed or cancelled. The incident exemplified how the railways, which made a lot progress after being privatised within the early 1990s, have gone off-track. Final yr delays and cancellations reached their worst degree in practically a decade. On the identical time passenger numbers fell by 1.4%, the primary dip since privatisation. Amid all this, passengers are paying extra. Ticket costs have risen twice as quick as wages since 2010.
When Britain broke up and bought British Rail, the state-run monopoly, it hoped to spur competitors and reduce prices. With this goal it launched into a radical experiment, tried earlier than solely in Sweden, of separating the administration of the tracks from that of the trains. Politicians feared that chaos may ensue, and a few politically delicate strains may shut, if the system went from inflexible state monopoly to free-market free-for-all in a single day. In order that they launched a system of franchises, by which firms may bid for the precise to function specified companies, to make sure continuity and permit for the subsidising of loss-making companies.
The opposition Labour Social gathering, which got here to again privatisation within the 1990s, needs to renationalise the community. Andy McDonald, the shadow transport secretary, argues that privatisation has left “a fragmented and inefficient community that drives up prices”, and says the reply is for a single state-owned agency to run each trains and monitor. Most voters appear to agree. A ballot final yr by BMG Analysis discovered that 64% help nationalisation. (The identical shouldn’t be essentially true of rail-users, notes Anthony Smith of Transport Focus, a watchdog. It finds that passengers care extra about having a dependable service than who runs it.)
Supporters of nationalisation examine Britain’s railways unfavourably with these in different European international locations, the place the state performs a extra lively position. But, maybe surprisingly, many international locations on the continent see the British mannequin as one to repeat. EU guidelines that got here into drive in June require state-owned rail companies to open their tracks to rivals and legally separate the administration of monitor and practice, as in Britain. And though British rail-users are fed up, these elsewhere are crosser nonetheless. Solely 5 EU international locations have happier passengers (and most of them are in international locations with out many railway strains).
Britons could scoff at the concept that they’ve something to show the world about railways. However they do (see chart). Passenger numbers have risen by virtually 120% since privatisation, twice the rise within the next-best huge nation, Spain. This can be as a result of different types of transport have turn out to be extra wretched: driving has obtained pricier, as an illustration. But anti-car insurance policies have gone additional in different international locations, with out an equal rail increase. In the meantime, Britain has gone from having probably the most accident-prone railways in Europe to operating its most secure.
Common British fares are by a way the best in Europe. However European passengers pay much less for his or her tickets primarily as a result of they pay extra by way of taxation. In France and Germany, taxpayers cowl virtually half the price of practice tickets, whereas the fares Britons pay totally cowl the trains’ working prices. Any argument for growing subsidies should reckon with the truth that rail-users are, on common, a richer bunch than those that use different types of transport, corresponding to buses.
The place Britain does badly is within the essential space of reliability. Though its long-distance trains are fairly punctual by European requirements, its short-haul ones run late. Britain comes 19th out of 26 European international locations for punctuality on native routes—and these are those that trigger most anguish, as commuters depend on them to get to work on time.
The franchising enterprise has additionally generally proved chaotic. The East Coast mainline franchise has gone bust 3 times—in 2007, 2009 and 2018—as operators overpromised how a lot they might pay in track-access expenses. Even Eamonn Butler of the Adam Smith Institute, a libertarian think-tank which pioneered the thought of separating the administration of monitor and trains, admits that franchises “didn’t work out as we meant”.
Confronted with these issues, the federal government is considering new approaches. On some long-distance routes it’s operating an “open-access” system, underneath which totally different firms are allowed to run companies alongside the identical route in competitors with one another. The concept is to supply passengers a alternative, driving down costs and inspiring innovation—one thing that’s discouraged by franchising, by which rail firms are tied to contracts so detailed that some even specify how usually practice carpets must be shampooed.
The outcomes are encouraging. On the East Coast mainline, open-access operators corresponding to Hull trains and Grand Central now compete for passengers. Common fares are decrease than on the West Coast mainline, the place the West Midlands trains franchise for stopping companies and the Virgin trains franchise for specific ones maintain near-monopolies. Three of the 4 practice firms with the best passenger-satisfaction scores final yr had been open-access operators, not franchisees.
On shorter strains, the open-access method is more durable to drag off. Busy commuter routes have such tightly packed companies that arranging a timetable round a number of firms can be a recipe for chaos. So another method is to grant concessions by which a single operator indicators a contract to run all companies on a line, and generally to keep up the monitor as effectively. London’s Docklands Mild Railway, which has the happiest rail passengers within the capital, is run like this by Keolis, a French agency. Three of Britain’s 4 most punctual rail companies are concessions.
Granting concessions doesn’t give passengers a alternative about how they journey. But a component of competitors may be launched by re-opening various strains that had been closed half a century in the past. In 2016 Chiltern Railways opened a London-Oxford line that had been closed by British Rail within the 1960s, when rail use was in decline. Inside just a few months the incumbent on a rival line, GWR, reduce ticket costs and launched free Wi-Fi. Some have proposed re-opening a 40-mile stretch of the Nice Central Railway between Aylesbury and Rugby to offer competitors for the West Coast mainline between London and the north.
There could also be little case for turning again the clock to the 1980s, earlier than privatisation. However going again even additional, to the times when passengers had an actual alternative of which line to take, is a promising various.■