4 January 2019

In defence of Britain’s railways


In the week of the annual rail fare rise, this year at the higher rate of measured inflation, writing in defence of Britain’s railways is a brave — or perhaps even foolhardy — endeavour.

It’s certainly true that recent news hasn’t been good: acute delays on some lines, bankrupted and bailed-out franchises, the re-timetabling was a fiasco. But recent Centre for Policy Studies analysis finds that when one looks at the figures in more detail, two truths come into sight: in absolute terms and by contemporary comparison with other major European railways, we’re mostly doing rather well; and, more importantly given the current debate, there has been consistent improvement since privatisation in the early 1990s.

Travelling by rail is increasingly favoured over travelling by car or bus: in 1993 only 4.6 per cent of all passenger kilometres were by train, by 2016 that had almost doubled to 8.8 per cent — this is surely a measure of at least relative satisfaction. Between 1997 and 2012 the proportion of rail passengers surveyed who considered themselves satisfied increased faster in the United Kingdom than in any other European country, and in a 2013 Eurobarometer survey Britain came second only to Finland in overall satisfaction. By 2018 things had slipped a little, and another Eurobarometer survey had us sixth on the same measure. But even then, those countries ahead of us have relatively small networks – of the six largest railways networks in Europe (Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the UK and Spain) the United Kingdom’s remains the most popular with its users.

Once again, in both absolute terms and improvement over time, the UK has a strong record on safety. Measured as injuries per thousand train kilometres, as of 2016 (the latest year for which European comparisons are possible) Britain had the second safest railways in the EU, behind Ireland, which has a small network and recorded no victims. We experienced the fourth fastest improvement in this metric between 2004 and 2010 across the continent, and, with the exception of the Croydon derailment, there have been no fatalities as a result of a train accident since 2007.

British railways come out on top in measures of productivity as well as satisfaction. We’re getting a lot out of our infrastructure: as of 2016 we had the second highest ratio of passenger kilometres to track in the EU and the third highest ratio of passenger kilometres to train kilometres – measures of the productivity of the track and rolling stock respectively. Again, the United Kingdom experienced the fastest growth of the former and the fifth fastest growth of the latter in the EU between 1993 and 2008. The productivity of railway labour, measured as the ratio of passenger kilometres to staff, also increased after privatisation, more than doubling in total and growing at the third fastest rate on the continent.

Between 2000 and 2008, the productivity of subsidy (measured as passenger kilometres achieved by a given amount of subsidy) also grew fastest in the United Kingdom. As of 2016, we were the only country to be receiving a net payment from the train operating companies rather than making a net payment to them: in 2017/18 that figure was £200m. Of course, there is a net subsidy to the railways including infrastructure, but the evidence suggests that total subsidies are lower here than in other major European counties: in 2018 they were €14bn in France but only €7bn here. What’s more, last year we recorded the largest private investment in the railways since the time series began in 2006/7 – one outcome of which will be a reduction in the average age of the rolling stock from 19.6 years to 15 years by 2021.

Much as all of this is true, it’s time to turn, five minutes late, to what might be considered the bread and butter of rail travel: punctuality and prices. It’s certainly true that in recent years the punctuality of British trains has deteriorated: as of 2016 we scored at 20th out of 26 EU countries for turning up on time.

There are two caveats to this. First, it mostly represents a blip in a positive trend; while only 79.1 per cent of trains arrived within five minutes of the scheduled time in 2000/01 and 87.5 per cent did in 2017/18, the metric peaked at over 90 per cent earlier in the decade. Second, the aforementioned 2018 Eurobarometer survey had us at 10th for satisfaction on punctuality, and 4th for satisfaction on frequency. It may be that British trains turn up late more often, but also tun up more often. It may also be that our punctuality problems are caused by the intensity with which the track is being used: in a tight system, a small error can be amplified. Indeed, one man’s “productivity” might be another man’s “strain” or “overcrowding”. In any case, there is every reason to believe Britain will recover from this blip, and return to the earlier trend of improvement.

Finally, price. It is true that the prices paid by the passengers in the UK are some of the highest in the EU and have inflated quickly across the last few decades. But this is only part of the story. The actual price of rail travel is that borne not only directly by the consumer but also by the taxpayer.

In the United Kingdom, we choose for more of the burden to be borne by the passenger than some other countries do. So, it’s fair to say rail travel isn’t necessarily cheaper in those countries than it is here, it’s just that the price is distributed differently. It isn’t obvious why it would be either more efficient or more equitable for those members of the public who don’t use the railways to subsidise through their taxes those who do to a greater extent than they already are. Furthermore, during the period over which prices have been rising, consistent improvements have been made across railway performance metrics, as we have seen.

To make these points is not to defend the status quo: nobody would disagree that our railways are imperfect nor that they can be improved. It may be time to reconsider the disintegration of track and train, or to consider open-access arrangements, whereby operators can compete against each other and the principal franchise operator on the same track — this has been a successful feature of the East Coast Main Line since 2000. The Centre for Policy Studies called for this innovation in its 2013 paper “Rail’s Second Chance” as a means of finally achieving the competitive railway network envisioned in the early 1990s. We hope for some movement following the publication of the Williams Review in 2019.

But the strongest argument against the renationalisation now being argued for by the Labour Party is surely the great improvement in those railway performance metrics between the early 1990s and late-noughties, in other words since privatisation.

The jump from acknowledging the imperfection of the status quo to renationalisation is an impossible one when one considers that across the metrics outlined, performance has increased since privatisation. On the only metric for which that isn’t true – prices – it would be perfectly possible for the government to provide a direct subsidy to the consumer to bring down the price, without changing railway ownership. And if the government decided that would be a good use of taxpayers’ money, there’s nothing to stop them doing it.

What there is no reasonable justification for, though, is throwing out a system that has resulted in consistent improvements since it was introduced, nor one which performs well absolutely on most metrics today and by European comparison – as we have shown. It is possible to go forwards, but unnecessary to go backwards.

Conor Walsh is a researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies.