On track: how do we rate Britain’s railways?

By Harry Fone, grassroots campaign manager at the TaxPayers’ Alliance

It’s fair to say the recent launch of the Great British Rail Sale generated a mixed response from the public and pundits alike. Of most interest to me was a piece in the Daily Telegraph  by transport commentator Christian Wolmar, who criticised Britain’s comparatively slow and expensive railways. Similarly, in a tweet by the Mayor of Manchester Andy Burnham, he pointed out that a return train ticket from London to Manchester was more expensive than a return flight to countries such as Brazil and India. But are Britain’s railways as bad as they are made out to be, and should they be fully renationalised as Mr Burnham advocates?

Are Britain’s railways expensive?

Let’s address the cost issue first. In his article, Wolmar asserts: “Take a train from London to Gatwick; unless you book in advance, it’s £20.70 – compared with airport fares in Berlin and Paris of 7.60 and 11.40 euros respectively.”

The key phrase here is “unless you book in advance”. Logging onto a popular train ticket website reveals you can buy a ticket one week in advance for £2.70 plus an 80 pence booking fee from London to Gatwick - a good deal cheaper than Gare du Nord to Paris Charles De Gaulle. It’s not true that trains are always much cheaper in Europe. As rail blogger Mark Smith writes, having analysed comparable journeys in Britain versus France, Italy and Germany:

“...the next time someone says (or you read) ‘Britain has the highest rail fares in Europe’, you'll know this is only 15% of the story. The other 85% is that we have similar or even cheaper fares, too. The big picture is that Britain has the most commercially aggressive fares in Europe, with the highest fares designed to get maximum revenue from business travel, and some of the lowest fares designed to get more revenue by filling more seats.”

So what about Burnham’s point about airfares to exotic destinations being cheaper than rail? Yes, an anytime return ticket (£369) can be more expensive than a return flight to Jamaica. But even on the day of travel, you can get much cheaper fares by booking two Advanced Singles (one each for outgoing and return journeys).

This doesn’t tell the full story though. Another issue we have to consider is competition. A quick search on a flight comparison website revealed 8 different carriers can fly you from London to Jamaica. You won’t get this kind of choice on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) between London Euston and Manchester Piccadilly, where there is just one provider. 

The East Coast Main Line (ECML) is a different story however. The government-owned LNER service competes against HullTrains, Grand Central and, recently, Lumo. A report by the Adam Smith Institute in 2019 lays out the benefits:

“On the East Coast mainline where two open access operators compete head to head with monopoly franchise operator LNER, passengers can choose between the inter-available (use all three operators) or a cheaper flexible buy on the day specific train company ticket.”

To bring down prices, what passengers badly need on the WCML and other parts of the network is more competition.

Are Britain’s railways slow?

At a very basic level, our railways are relatively slow. If you leave High Speed 1 (HS1) out of the equation, then Britain’s railways top out at 125mph. Compare this to France and Germany, where intercity trains hit 186mph and an astonishing 249mph in Italy.

Once again though, this doesn’t tell the full story. Comparing Britain with France and Italy isn’t saying much. All our major cities and major population centres are within around 200 miles of each other, which is scarcely the case on the continent. High speed rail has to operate differently on our tiny island.

Despite our trains running at just 125mph, you can still get from one city to another incredibly quickly. London to York on the ECML takes just 1 hour 45 minutes. London to Manchester will take just under 2.5 hours, and London to Bristol 1 hour 40 minutes. You can’t do these journeys quicker by car; and while the time in the air might be quicker, by the time you factor in waiting around at the airport terminal, flying isn’t any faster.

Comparatively fast as they are, these journey times could of course be improved. That’s where investment comes in. Instead of ploughing billions into the white elephant of High-Speed 2, we could be upgrading existing infrastructure on the West and East coast lines. Signal improvements could increase the top speed to 140 mph. Similarly, grade separation at Ledburn Junction on the WCML would allow more trains to run per hour.

These improvements come with investment, both public and private too. 


Is full renationalisation the answer?

Renationalisation is unlikely to deliver the kind of sustainable investment we need, and would do away with competition driving down prices. In many ways you could argue the railways have been renationalised. The government has done away with the franchising system and many rail operators have fallen into public ownership in recent years. There’s no guarantee though that this will improve the level of service and fare prices.

Rail fares are already subsidised by the taxpayer through general taxation. If commuters want lower ticket prices with renationalised railways, then the level of subsidy will have to be increased. Given the tax burden is already at a 70-year high, it will be a hard sell to taxpayers - and particularly to those who don’t regularly use trains. After all, why should those that don’t use the railways subsidise those that do?

It’s also worth considering why the railways were privatised in the first place. There’s a reason British Rail was widely mocked - the service was poor and passengers weren’t best pleased. As research by the TaxPayers’ Alliance noted:

"Since the privatisation of British Rail, passenger numbers and satisfaction have increased substantially. The post-privatisation period between 1996 and 2019 showed an increase in passenger journeys of 119 per cent… Similarly, the National Rail Passenger Survey showed that the percentage of journeys that were satisfactory was 82 per cent in autumn 2019, a notable increase from the same period a year earlier.”

Why do we assume more government involvement would magically transform and improve something as complicated as Britain’s railways?

How can we make Britain's railways better?

There are much fairer and more reliable ways of bringing down prices and boosting investment. Instead of charging full steam ahead towards public ownership, we should be embracing more involvement from the private sector. 

As the East Coast Main Line shows, when there is more competition, passengers are happier and fares are cheaper. We need more open access operators like Grand Central, Lumo and others to enter the marketplace.

With investment, we can make the railways faster and more enjoyable too. HS2 should never have been given the go-ahead. As our Great British Transport Competition showed, there were a myriad of simple, shovel-ready projects that would have greatly improved the speed and connectivity of the railways - all for a fraction of the cost.

As alluring as it may sound, renationalisation isn’t the answer. Competition and investment will deliver the best value for taxpayers and passengers.

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