The railway system in the UK is in crisis, the price to travel by train has hit an all-time high and we now have some of the most expensive fares in Europe. On Southern, Rail, the long dispute over Driver Only Operation has led to further strike action and misery for commuters. On the Midland Mainline, electrification has been pushed back. A standard class return from Coventry to London Euston on Virgin Trains at peak time could relieve you of an eye watering £150. For the same price, you could buy a Chromebook, or a 7th generation iPod nano. Granted, one of Richard Branson’s Pendolino trains can get you into London Euston in just an hour, but are the prices really worth it and do they encourage people to travel by train? Polls have suggested that the public are in favour of renationalising our rail network. Are they being nostalgic about a system that wasn’t sustainable or is a state owned system, like British Rail, the way forward?
In 1994, just as John Major’s Conservative administration was beginning to privatise British Rail, it was clear that the railways were in need of change. After 46 years in public ownership, our trains and stations were in dire need of some investment. High profile engineering projects such as the Advanced Passenger Train had met their demise in the 1980s and parts of the network were becoming very run-down. In handing the system over to the private sector, the idea had been to create a first class railway network that would cost the tax-payer less and provide competitive prices with a better service. The trains themselves would be modern and faster, allowing new services to operate and more people to travel. To a degree, some parts of this plan worked. On lines such as the Midland Mainline, which had been known as the ‘Cinderella line’ of the network under BR, there was genuine improvement to infrastructure and the service. Elsewhere on the network, the West Coast Mainline saw its aging fleet of electric and diesel locomotives replaced with state of the art Pendolino and Voyager units that are able to tilt and maintain high speed around the many curves on the line. Other parts of the country have seen their service intensified and many major stations such as Reading, Nottingham and Birmingham New Street have had refurbishments. On the East Coast Mainline, there is an example of genuine competition with an open-access operator, Grand Central, operating competing services to the line’s franchise operator, Virgin Trains East Coast.
Unfortunately, many other parts of the network and the travelling public haven’t had it quite so good. There has been a progressive cut down on staff and facilities have slowly been scaled back. On many branch lines in the north and in Wales, there hasn’t been any serious investment in the trains for many years. ‘Pacer’ units (buses on rails) that were intended to be used as a stopgap are still in service and whilst operated by Virgin, eight carriage locomotive hauled trains on Cross Country services were replaced with four and five carriage multiple units. At peak time, there is over-crowding across the board and passengers can be forced to stand in cramped conditions on long-distance journeys. Ticketing has become confusing, punctuality is at its worst level in a decade and in parts of the country, fleets of trains are stretched to capacity. The system has become fragmented. From Coventry to Birmingham New Street, there are three different operators and more than ten different ticket types available. For passengers, this can be incredibly confusing and despite fares going up in recent years, the level of service has slowly been clipped back. British Railways trains generally had restaurant/ buffet facilities on InterCity and Cross Country services, since privatisation these facilities have been cut down and on some routes, there is no longer on-board catering. Trains in some areas are now driver only operated and station booking-offices are becoming a thing of the past. We’ve gone from having some of the cheapest fares in Europe in 1981 to having some of the most expensive in 2016, how can it be argued that the travelling public are getting a good deal?
The reason we have been left with such a poor system is mainly down to the fact that railways and private-enterprise are no longer compatible. There is a severe conflict of interest between a private company trying to make a profit and providing a good service for passengers. Aside from this, the major issue is that operators can charge whatever they want for tickets because there isn’t any real competition and this is especially true on commuter routes. Virgin Trains West Coast actively prevented the now defunct open-access operator Wrexham and Shropshire from picking up and setting down at some stations on its route (Birmingham New Street and Coventry). Their argument for doing so was that it broke a Moderation of Competition clause in the franchise agreement. How, if a clause preventing competition was written into the franchise, did anyone expect competition to bring down fares? The reality is, rail fares are continuing to rise but standards are dropping and costs are still being cut.
British Rail may have had its issues, but in the early 1980s, things were going well. The Inter-City 125 had led to a renaissance in rail travel and were well liked. Journey times decreased and passenger numbers surged. In 1981, a study by Leeds University found that British Rail ran the second most efficient railway network in Europe with some of the cheapest fares. Even Margaret Thatcher, with her huge parliamentary majority, believed that the railways would be ‘one privatisation too far’. By 1994, the public perception of British Rail had been badly damaged by under-funding and the failure of the Advanced Passenger Train project. The foundations were laid for privatisation and the public accepted it as they were promised a better system. Now, the system has failed and the tide has turned and it is as good a time as any to take back control of our railways. In the short term, the move may prove to be expensive but in the long term, it would bring about uniformity and a railway that we can be proud of with a good service for the travelling public. Perhaps it is finally time for a new age of the train.