We love to knock our railways. It is almost a national sport to moan about delays, cancellations, fares and the wrong kind of everything, from snow to sunshine.
And many of those complaints are justified. A decade-old privatisation universally recognised as botched and fundamentally flawed has unsettled the whole industry and led to an increase in delays, a sharp rise in ‘walk on’ fares and a massive rise in subsidy from the taxpayer. And while there are a lot of new trains and extra investment flowing into the system, few of the promised improvements in customer service from the private companies have materialised.
However, it is when we make comparisons with the rail service abroad that perhaps some of those sentiments seem borne more of prejudice than a rational assessment of the facts. There is no doubt that the best of foreign railways are in a completely different league from the vast majority of Britain’s trains but there are a lot of good services in the UK which bear comparison with the general standard found abroad.
The publicly owned Swiss railways, for example, do really run like clockwork and provide a truly integrated service that is at the heart of the country’s transport network. The Japanese Shinkansen high speed services run at remarkably high frequencies, with trains at peak times just a few minutes apart, and to a punctuality we can only dream of, measured in tenths of seconds.
Nearer home, there is no doubt that the French TGV network has transformed rail travel and all but wiped out airline competition on several routes, such as Paris – Lyon and Paris – Brussels, and even recently, since the extension southwards, Paris – Marseilles. And all this is at fares which are far less than those paid here.
High speed networks are being developed across Europe, with extensions or new lines currently under construction in Holland, Spain, France, Germany and Italy, just to mention the biggest. Yet in Britain, we have the stub of a line that will extend from St Pancras to the Channel Tunnel and that will be all for at least the next decade, and possibly ever.
However, not everything is so rosy elsewhere. Try taking a train from a provincial town in France not served by the TGV and it can compare quite unfavourably with what is available at say Ipswich or Exeter.. We have a very good network of trains serving towns on the East Coast and West Coast main line, and now that work on the latter is nearing completion, journey times to Manchester and Birmingham are being cut dramatically. Not so in France, where even quite major cities are served by irregular and slow trains from Paris.
And London’s suburban network is the most extensive in Europe, with regular trains at the same time past the hour throughout the day, something which is not always the case even in Europe. Again, Paris has the advantage of having suburban RER trains which go through the centre on lines shared with M é tro services, but again a detailed comparison of provision does not always favour the French. We may complain about the state of some our suburban stations, but there are ones in the ParisBanlieu where only the brave dare to hop on a train.
The fares issue is interesting, too. On the face of it, Britain has the most expensive fares in Europe. A recent Liberal Democrat press release pointed out that ‘£10 would get you 300 miles in Slovakia, 100 in Italy but only 25 in the UK.
But that does not tell the whole story as the response from the Association of Train Operating Companies whose spokesman, George Muir, pointed out that these simple comparisons are unfair: ‘Over 90 per cent of tickets sold are at discounted rates’ and the average fare is £4. He has a point but walk on fares are still unacceptably high and the ticketing system far too complex compared with many European countries. And the lack of a National Rail card, offering regular users fares at a discount, is a disgrace. Therefore the a perception among rail users and indeed the general public that fares are prohibitively high is not far off the mark.
The notable point about all the best railways such as the Japanese and the Swiss, and effectively the French, too, is that they are run as an integrated business. In other words, the track and infrastructure are under the control of the same managers as the service operators. The main reason privatisation went so badly wrong was because of the separation of the two and the attempt to commercialise the infrastructure company, Railtrack. They have also benefited from long term high levels of investment.
Gradually, the British railways are moving back towards a more integrated structure with the creation of what is effectively a state owned infrastructure company, Network Rail, and the taking back in-house of its maintenance contracts, and soon, at least one renewal contract. There is, too, much greater investment though not all of that money is being spent effectively. That will undoubtedly improve performance and reduce costs, but many experienced railway managers feel that it is only through full reintegration, together with sustained investment, that the system will improve dramatically.