Last Call: The State of UK Rail

The United Kingdom has always been a strong developer and user of railways. Trains are the great modern mover of people, with over 1.7 billion passengers last year. But the development, quality and price of UK rail is being overlooked. We have fallen behind our European partners and we seem to be content with this. One of the great British pastimes today is lamenting the state of the railway without actually doing something about it. It’s time to change that.

“Convenient”, what rail travel is meant to be. The headache every passenger faces is figuring out what types of train tickets that one can and cannot purchase. This might depend on your age, status and the time at which you want to travel. Slapped onto that is how far in advance you should purchase a ticket. If, and that’s a big if, you are able to purchase a train ticket for your next journey, 20 days in advance, on a precise service, at a time which is not considered to be “peak”, rail travel might – just might – work for you. For the rest of society, it’s simply inconvenient.

For some time, train journeys have been costing too much. This has led to low cost coach companies providing attractive prices for day trips and holidays to the West Country or up north to Scotland. Sometimes, even driving equates to a similar cost (if not cheaper) than taking the train. Granted, you have to have a car. But nowadays most families have a car, and if not, there are plenty of car-sharing schemes out there. On the price front, we need to take a closer look at commuter travel. Getting to your office for your 9-5 job can cost you dearly. A 1-hour Oxford to London return journey can easily cost you 60 pounds. Hardly seems to be a budget-friendly option.

Quality is the other dimension we should pay attention to. No available seats is a common sight as carriages are jam-packed. Added onto that is the fact that trains are diesel-powered, leaving you with a nice layer of soot every so often. A memorable experience.

The UK is known to be a country that engages with infrastructure projects with high returns. The pace at which it completes them is abysmal. Admittedly, the UK government does a thorough job of weighing up the environmental, social and economic impacts of each project. Having said that, the UK is too slow. The HS2 project – linking up London to Birmingham with fast rail – is expected to be completed by 2026! Moreover, Network Rail (the network provider) is failing consumers. Having estimated the cost of electrifying rail in other UK regions at about £834 million in 2013, that figure has now surpassed the £2.3 mark. Speed and precision don’t seem to be norm.
But does it have to be this way? The short answer is no. Our neighbouring countries are good examples. France has the TGV. Switzerland has the SBB. Italy has the Freccie. Spain has the Ave. All of these countries operate beautiful trains at high speeds and low cost. As you zoom along in a TGV train from Dijon to Paris, or as the Tuscan hills pass you by on your southerly journey to Rome, it’s hard not to notice the differences. Continental European trains are fast, clean, and remarkable. Even international travel can be a friendly weekend option. Let’s take a journey from Zurich, Switzerland, to Milan, Italy. Travellers can purchase a ticket just a few days before for little over 40 CHF. That equates to about 30 GBP.

Bordering on naïvety is what we are doing. We cannot allow ourselves to accept the state of the railway in the UK. Everybody, except the railway companies, is losing. It’s now become normal practice for rail companies to increase train fares in January of every year, regardless of the quality of their service. This is unacceptable. We have to strive to have it better. Network rail and rail companies should be held accountable to Parliament and the government should seriously consider nationalising the railways. That could be a wake-up call.


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