A blueprint for Britain’s railways

Gloom descended as commuters found that their fares would be rising by 8 per cent in January.

This followed hot on the heels of news from the Office of Rail Regulation that overcrowding was getting worse – hardly a surprise for most passengers given that rail use has increased by almost half in the past decade and there are barely any extra services.

To cap it all, there was now talk of Europe determining fares on the UK railways, which would remove any chance of British passengers having any influence over rail policy.

All this came on top of the government-sponsored report published earlier this year by Sir Roy McNulty suggesting that the £5bn taxpayers’ bill for Britain’s railways was unaffordable. His report found that thanks to inefficiency, much of it the result of the railways’ fragmentation following privatisation, they were costing 40 per cent more than similar railways abroad.

Surprisingly, it is actually not all bad news on the railways. The government’s claim that there is record investment in them is actually true.Huge schemes – such as upgrading Thameslink, which runs between towns to the north and south of the capital; creating Crossrail, the new east–west tunnel under London; and the rebuilding of stations such as King’s Cross, Paddington and Reading, each one a megaproject in itself costing hundreds of millions of pounds – are all under way.

As if that were not enough, there are even bigger plans on the horizon, such as the electrification of the Great Western line, the replacement of all the old High Speed Trains with a new Japanese-designed supertrain, and – the granddaddy of them all – the £32bn high speed line to link London with Birmingham and, eventually, Leeds and Manchester.

This is all well and good, but the problem is that there is no overall vision for the railways. That’s hardly surprising given that the quasi-privatisation of the mid-1990s left us with a fragmented railway with more than 20 operators, a separate company in the form of Network Rail that is in charge of the track and signalling, and which exists in a no man’s land between the private and public sectors, and a Department for Transport whose civil servants specify in great detail how the private companies operate their train services.

As a result, vast sums are spent on particular schemes, mostly concentrated around London – but no one is co-ordinating all this effort or thinking about what he railways will look like in, say, 2050 or even 2100. Take HS2, the proposed new high speed line running through the spine of England. It’s a project that is likely to absorb all the spare cash for rail investment for the next couple of decades, and yet ultimately will help only a small proportion of Britain’s rail travellers.

Commuters in London and other major cities, long-distance travellers heading east or west, and passengers on the overcrowded lines to the south coast will not benefit a jot and may find their own services do not improve as all the money has gone to HS2. Instead of a French-style grand projet, what we need is a modern railway for all of Britain.

Even though the railways have been effectively controlled by the government since nationalisation in 1948, no government has ever sat down and tried to set out a map of the service that Britain needs. That is why some towns, such as, say, Middlesbrough or Grimsby have no daily direct services to London, while other similar-sized places, such as Woking and Crewe, have dozens.

While it would be impossible to accommodate every place’s needs, let’s at least have a railway that tries to cater for as many people as possible. Those neglected cross-country routes and branch lines – which a report last week showed have seen a huge increase in popularity, with journey numbers on some lines in Cornwall and Derbyshire having almost doubled in the last three years – need to be brought up to standard, and with timetables that make them viable rather than financial basket-cases. (It was a trick of those who closed railway lines in the sixties to run down services so badly that no one ever used the railway, giving them the excuse to shut it permanently.)

In Spain, the high speed network is being drawn up on a framework designed to ensure 90 per cent of the population is within 50kms of a high-speed station. A start towards a railway for all could be made with electrification. Electric trains are cleaner, more comfortable, accelerate faster, and are less environmentally damaging.

Commendably, the government is committed to electrifying part of the Great Western line – from London to Swansea – and the Liverpool–Manchester line, but that will still leave swathes of the network, notably the Midland Main Line between London and Sheffield and many commuter services in provincial towns, operated by smelly old diesels.

A modern railway should, too, mean a better one. Yet, many of the so called ‘improvements’ on Britain’s railways in recent years have been, well, nothing of the sort.

The installation of inconvenient barriers staffed by security guards with no remit to help passengers at mainline stations used by long-distance passengers carrying baggage is just one such example.

While on the subject of baggage, modern coaches, too, often have far less space for suitcases than their older predecessors which also had the simple amenity of windows being aligned with seats, rather than views being blocked by bulkheads.

Catering, too, has been in sad decline with the demise of the dining car and the replacement on some lines of buffets with trolleys. Of course, we cannot expect a return to the days of three-course meals served by white-jacketed stewards, but providing good meals is surely part of the service. And that’s the magic word: service. So much of today’s railway seems to be run for the convenience of those providing it. Yes, of course the technology of trains will improve in the next 50 or 100 years, just as it has in the past; but, the railway of 2010 will still essentially consist of transporting people in large boxes very fast on a pair of tracks.

Therefore, it is how passengers are treated where the biggest change could take place. It is, for example, amazing that on large stretches of track it is impossible to make a mobile phone call.

While phones may be irritating for some passengers, they have become essential for modern life, and the railways have missed a trick by not ensuring continuous service.

Take ticketing, too. When London passengers were, at last, able to use their Oyster cards on nearly all rail journeys within the capital, it led to a vast increase in numbers using the railways. Surely, by 2050, all passengers across the whole network should be able to flash a card at a reader to validate their journey. That would also mean simplifying the current ridiculously complex fares system.

None of this can be achieved without the creation of a large railway organisation, separate from government and staffed with career railway managers who would be able to make decisions in the long-term interests of the railway and its passengers.

Forget, for the moment, the debate about whether this should be in the private or public sector, but concentrate instead on the fact that nearly every country with a large railway industry has just such a railway organisation, whether it is DB in Germany, SNCF in France or Indian Railways. The US is a rare exception and its sparse passenger services are the result, while Japan differs from the norm in that it has three major private rail companies, all profitable.

Britain lost such a co-ordinating body when British Rail was broken up into more than a hundred companies at privatisation, and has paid a heavy price in terms of a railway that has lost its way. When the current mad fad for consultancies, outsourcing and fragmentation has run its course, the reconstruction and revival of Britain’s railways could get under way, stimulated by an organisation which we could call British Railways.

  • Marianna

    My experience with people managing the British rail network is, perhaps, illuminating. As part of a consultancy exercise, we were asked to help a company deal with engineering closures on the line. We proposed a mathematical model that minimized disruption on the whole of the network (it’s a pretty simple concept: you identify bottlenecks and limit engineering closures there at night or weekends, while elsewhere you can divert traffic down other routes).
    No, the company was not interested in that at all. They wanted the solution to focus only on their part of the network, to minimize bad press, and reduce the number of refunds they needed to give so their numbers would look good. What they wanted was a PR exercise.

  • David

    Isn’t the GWR only being electrified as far as Cardiff, rather than Swansea?

  • struans

    You’re right.  I’d like to have masses of money spent providing Grimsby with an uneconomic service to London.

    Also, those trains used on the Midland Main Line – they really are smelly old diesels….about 5 years old aren’t they ?

    ‘Britains Leading Transport Commentator’ ?   Are you sure ? 

  • Christian Wolmar

     I am pretty sure that they will change their minds over that – the Welsh Assembly is lobbying hard

  • SamG

    Do you really not know why Woking and Crewe have lots of daily London services while Grimsby and Middlesborough don’t, despite being ‘similar sized places’? That you ask the question doesn’t bode well for the rest of your analysis. I know zero about transport policy but I do know that Woking is both near London and is prime commuter territory, and that Crewe is a vital interchange en route to other places, that’s why they have lots of daily services, whereas Grimsby and Middlesborough are both…far from London and why is there an assumption they need lots of direct services to London?

  • Windsorian

    Quote from article “the government is committed to electrifying part of the Great Western line – from London to Swansea” !!!

  • Christian Wolmar

    Yes, you are right, it should have said Cardiff!

  • Chris Packham

    Any vision of Britain’s transport needs to consider all public transport, trains, buses and coaches, so the best mode is there for any journey between towns of, say,10,000+population, they link up, and have an integrated smart-card based ticketing system. Birmingham-Cambridge/Stansted is much quicker by road than rail, but despite a supposedly entrepreneurial private deregulated bus network there’s no quick coach on that route, though you’d think the demand is there. Unfortunately govt subsidies and funding streams play modes off against each other and there’s little vision in the transport industry for a truly integrated system despite the big groups running some or all of trains, buses, coaches and trams.

  • Paul Holt

    Paragraph 17: “…railway of 2010…”.   Should that be 2110?

    Missing from the (otherwise very good) article was identifying the broken links that would improve the network e.g. Braintree to Stansted (six miles of track) followed by Witham to Woodham Ferrers via Maldon plus a chord at Wickford, thus allowing Stansted to Southend trains for the first time.

  • Paul Holt

    The point is that Woking and Crewe (plus Durham and Newcastle) are on the main lines, while Grimsby and Middlesbrough are not.   This may not be a problem if the connecting services from Grimsby and Middlesbrough to the main line are adequate – are they?

    CW’s point is the lack of overall vision.   This article is a start towards providing that vision but needs more (see my comment above).

  • Windsorian

    With longer franchises planned, surely the DfT should be pushing for these so-called “missing links” to form part of the tender applications – so long as they are economically viable  ?

    The DB Chiltern Evergreen projects have set a benchmark for other TOCs to follow.

  • Rhydgaled

    They better change their mind fairly soon, financial close on the IEP order is coming up this year, then £52million worth of diesel engines will be purchased for their 70 5-car bi-mode sets. If all those bi-modes are ordered, it would be rather wasteful to electrify to Swansea. I wonder which of the following issues is the reason DfT don’t want to wire to Swansea:

    (a.) Shortage of funds
    (b.) Business case (only 1 passenger train per hour going electric without a micro-fleet of units just for the Swansea – Cardiff stopper, which I’d expect to be extended to Bristol given that plans seem to be afoot to drop the Bristol Parkway stop from the Paddington – Swansea trains after electrification).
    (c.) An irrational desire to appear ‘green’ while actually supporting the government’s attempts to commit enviromental suicide

    If (a.) is the reason, then restricting IEP guage clearance to the ECML and the core Bristol/Cardiff/Oxford route on Great Western might save enough money, any idea what that comes to? In this case Intercity 125s would have to run ALL the Paddington services to Taunton and beyond, rather than just most of them, and some would be needed on XC to release class 220 units (which would hopefully then gain a pantograph car from Derby works) to operate the Cotswolds line. These 220s could also be obtained, in a more expensive maner, by ordering another 20 odd Pendolinos for Virgin to allow them to release all their 221s to XC who would then be able to spare the 220s. This would also require less IEPs on GW, with them going to EC instead, cascading the IC225s from ECML to GWML to run the sections not cleared for IEP.

    If (b.) is the issue, then ValleyLines electrification needs to be bundled with it, they improve each other’s business case. Replacment of all south-Wales stoppers with electric traction in one go (by the 2020 Pacer deadline) would include an hourly Maesteg – Ebbw Vale service and an hourly Cardiff – Cheltenham service (which could be run through from Swansea, replacing the Swansea – Cardiff stopper) in addition to the Paddington – Swansea and a Swansea – Bristol service (run with units from the ValleyLines fleet) covering for the loss of the Bristol stop brings the electric passenger service frequency up both east and west of Cardiff. Between Cardiff and Bridgend there would be 4tph (Swansea – Cheltenham, Swansea – Bristol, Swansea Paddington and Ebbw Vale – Maesteg) with 3 of those running through to Swansea.

  • Richard Hare

    In all fairness that’s never going to happen. Too much of the old trackbeds built over. And back in 1890ish when the chords existed to allow Southend – Colchester through running it was slower than changing at Shenfield, hence the chords being pulled up.
    Nonetheless reinstatement of as much as possible of Braintree-Stortford would be good, with a north to west curve at Witham.

  • Anonymous

    I haven’t been on the WCML in ages – partly due to Virgin hiking the prices from Glasgow-London and the fact that I now live on the eastern side of the country…but what I have seen is that very few Anglo-Scottish services seem to stop at Crewe any more with Virgin’s obsession with trying to compete with airlines which diminishes its value as an interchange for us kilt-wearers at least……..in the old days Crewe was the jump-off point for Wales and the East Midlands whenever you were coming down from Glasgow.  Not so much any more.

  • Anonymous

    Just a couple of years ago I would have clung onto the hope that £20bn+ debts of Network Rail were the spectre looming in the background that threatened to bring down the whole house of cards – but now that sum looks like a drop in the ocean compared to the national debt, so I’m not so sure now.
    My personal take on this is that nothing will change until:
    A: Those at the top of this industry who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo are gone.  And they are creaming too much money from it at the moment, whilst government is quite happy to stand by and watch it happen.
    B: The political ideology that vertical integration is bad, separation and outsourcing is good is modified – AND politicians get it into their thick skulls that what is good for the goose isn’t good for the gander.  YES – this model suits some industries but not all. Certainly not the railways.
    Some examples:
    The oil industry – the most profitable industry in the world – is vertically integrated.  The oil companies explore for the stuff themselves, drill for it themselves, refine it themselves, deliver the product to the end user themselves.  Nobody is criticising the vertical integration model here are they?
    I’ve already talked about low cost airlines in another thread and CW quoted it in RAIL, but that’s another good example.
    Whilst on the subject of aeroplanes – the Boeing 787 – a terrible advertisement for fragmentation and outsourcing.  Fragmenting the manufacturing process to try and share the financial risk among suppliers, whilst introducing a major (and unproven) bit of technology at the same time has made a mockery of the world’s foremost commercial airframe manufacturer and allowed Airbus to take the lead.  In fact the whole debacle has echoes of Railtrack and the WCML debacle.  Won’t go into the details, but here’s an interesting article on it:
    http://www.itbusinessedge.com/cm/blogs/all/list-of-outsourcing-donts-from-boeings-787-project/?cs=45647But that’s my rant for today!

  • Anonymous
  • Fandroid

    I have been on the WCML a lot recently. As I’m old enough to have a national railcard I can get off-peak fares at any time of day (a Virgin special secret.  Also if you have kids, get a Family Railcard and drag one offspring along with you). Although I hate Pendolinos (tiny windows combined with far too much blank wall & miniscule overhead luggage racks), I love their speed. London to Manchester 2hrs 10 min (every 20 mins), London to Oxenholme 2 hrs 45 min. Miraculous! I am afraid that WCML services are just about all London-centric. Therefore no Interchange at Crewe for Glaswegians. The service follows the main source of money. That’s one result of privatisation.  

  • Fandroid

    I’m not sure that the Oil Industry is as vertically integrated as you say. Think of BP’s disastrous Gulf oil spill. Three companies are still fighting it out as who was to blame. The rig was operated by one subcontractor and the hole was developed by a another.

    However, it’s difficult to think of any non-ideological reason for not re-unifying the national rail network. It needs to be at arms length from the politicians (who should just set objectives) and a thousand miles away from civil servants who currently exercise fantastic power with just about zero responsibility.

  • Fandroid

    I don’t like the throw away comment about HS2 benefitting only a small proportion of Britain’s rail travellers. Directly, yes. Indirectly, no. The full Y will release capacity on the WCML all the way to Manchester (& Liverpool), the ECML to Leeds (& York) and the Midland main line to Leicester, Nottingham and Sheffield. It won’t help the majority of passengers, ie short-distance London commuters, but you’ve already indicated how well they are being catered for. HS2 will benefit a huge number of medium to long distance passengers.  

  • Paul Holt

    Agree with your opinion and your reasoning, Richard.   Yet it’s curious how roads can bulldoze their way wherever they want with impunity while any rail route requires considerable agonising.

  • Paul Holt

    To supplement my comment below, a criticism of CW’s article is that it’s about better managing the existing network rather than improving the network, which begs the question: what is CW’s vision?

    For those who missed it: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p00jwrg2/Reel_History_of_Britain_The_End_of_the_Line/