19 January 2017

Britain should be celebrating its railways, not cursing them


What if there were a British industry that was one of the most admired within the EU? That was in the top three or four on almost every performance metric – value for money, staff efficiency, customer satisfaction, you name it? And what if I told you that this model of good practice, this beacon of British excellence, was our railways?

A year or so ago, back in the innocent days before Brexit, I met up with a friend who worked for Network Rail. He seemed a bit run-down. He had, he explained, been run off his feet shepherding a delegation of more than a dozen railway executives and regulators from all around Europe on a whirlwind tour of our train network.

I made the obvious joke about them visiting to learn how not to do it. But no, my friend said. In Brussels and beyond, the British railways were seen as a real success story.

Yes, countries like France and Germany may have national champions such as SNCF and Deutsche Bahn. But their high-speed services are as impressive as their local lines are neglected – and those giants also swallow up huge amounts of subsidy.

Now, I appreciate that all this may not sound very convincing if you’re one of those who are unlucky enough to commute to work via Southern rail. But the evidence does bear it out.

According to the European Commission, the UK had (as of 2015) the most competitive rail freight market in Europe, and the third most competitive passenger market.

Its efficiency and productivity – looking at freight and passengers together – were up there at the top of the leader board with the Danes, Swiss and Dutch. Its operating costs were below the EU average – which includes the Eastern European nations where costs are far lower. Along with the Dutch, it had by far the lowest levels of state subsidy – and the highest level of infrastructure investment in conventional lines.

That’s not the end of it. Between 1995 and 2011, Britain’s railways saw the fastest passenger growth in Europe full stop. We are actually a strong performer on punctuality, and in 2013 we came second only to Finland in terms of passenger satisfaction – although this may have taken a dip in more recent times.

Breaking those 2013 figures down, we came top in terms of satisfaction with station quality, with train frequency, and a creditable fourth in terms of satisfaction with trains’ “punctuality and reliability”. Overall, we also had the highest number of passengers who are “highly satisfied”.

So why all the bad publicity? It’s an understatement to say that Britain’s trains do have their problems: there is general agreement that the current franchising model, in which one organisation has a monopoly of the track and another of the trains, is flawed. And prices for passenger tickets are indeed high – though that is partly a side-effect of a decision to reduce subsidies, rather than the result of profiteering from the train companies.

But many of our problems are shared with other railway networks, or are even worse there. And many others are the problems of success.

For example, one of the reasons we do so well in terms of efficiency is that we make good use of our track – in 2014, our railway was the second most intensively used after the Dutch. But that is because we are trying to cope with that surge of passengers – which has left our rail network as not just one of the most efficient, but one of the most crowded. Almost half of all the track designated as “congested infrastructure” across the EU is in this country. And in a system with so little slack, any problems tend to cascade across the timetables.

Why haven’t you heard this argument? I imagine because the Government hasn’t felt able to make it – because the narrative of privatisation as a disaster has become so firmly entrenched. (To the point where 60 per cent of the public favour renationalisation, and only 20 per cent back the status quo.)

But there’s also been a reluctance to confront and call out the unions. The other day, for example, I heard two people on the bus talking about the train strikes. They didn’t know much about the issue, but gathered it had something to do with the (evil, Tory) government and the (evil, capitalist) rail company trying to take guards off trains because they cared more about safety than profit.

In fact, the current row has nothing to do with safety. The truth is that “driver-only operation” – in which one person both drives the train and checks that passengers are clear of the doors – has been in operation across large swathes of the network for years.

Has there been a massive spike in the number of people injured by closing doors? Er, no. In fact, those same European figures show that between 2010 and 2013, Britain had the second safest trains in Europe. The number of accidental deaths or serious injuries per million train-kilometres travelled was 0.08 –many times lower than the continental average.

Suicides apart, the four passenger deaths on the rail network in 2014-15 (all of which took place within stations rather than on trains or during boarding) represented the lowest total since records began. And it is now almost a decade since a passenger died in a train crash.

It is very clear, in other words, that the recent strikes have less to with passenger safety than a self-confessed attempt to bring down the Tory government – and, of course, to line rail staff’s pockets in the process. If they can stir the public up against rail privatisation, so much the better.

This isn’t a popular thing to say, I know. But the evidence from across Europe suggests – no, proves – that the more liberalised a rail network, the more successful it is.

Yes, Britain has problems with its system. But that seems to be part and parcel of running a modern railway, unless you are willing to put in unsustainable amounts in terms of subsidy

The answer to that is not to go back to the nationalised days of British Rail, however popular the policy may be. It is to build on what is best about the current system – and, of course, to tell the unions where to stick it.

Robert Colvile is Editor of CapX